Monday, September 24, 2012

Endeavor's farewell flight over Berkeley

On Friday morning, a few weeks after posting about my memory of the first man to walk on the moon, I stepped out the front door of the building where I work just off the northwest corner of the UC Berkeley campus and got a great big eye-full of the space shuttle Endeavor on the last leg of its flight to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Forty-three years after Neil Armstrong took that great leap for humankind, the Endeavor, bolted atop a modified 747 responsible for the actual flying, was on its way to becoming fuel for museum-goers' imagination and ambition, like so many of its spacefaring predecessors.

I'd been having a conversation over a colleague's cubicle wall when another programmer in our department came over to say he'd been watching Endeavor-sightings scroll by on Twitter. He said it looked like the shuttle would be flying over Berkeley in five or ten minutes. So a few of us headed for the stairwell, bouncing ideas around for which nearby open space might be best for catching sight of the farewell flight.

We figured the pilots would fly by sites along the East Bay hills where amateur astronomers gather to watch the skies: the Chabot Space and Science Center, a few miles south of the Oakland/Berkeley border; the Lawrence Hall of Science directly uphill from the university. And we knew the flight was booked to pass by the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. So there was little doubt, given the geography, that the shuttle would pass over at least some parts of the campus.

As it did. Boy, did it...

On the corner nearest to our building, a woman said her husband had seen the shuttle pass over Walnut Creek about ten minutes before. That meant the Endeavor would fly over the campus any minute, so we decided to just wait where we stood, at the intersection of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street.

We didn't wait long. As if out of nowhere, flying so low it seemed to graze the tops of the trees, the shuttle, its Boeing-made steed, and a fighter-jet escort came looming over Oxford Street and roared by us, almost directly overhead.

The photo posted above -- thanks to Flickrnaut Doug Letterman -- was taken in downtown Berkeley near the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Haste Street, a little more than a half-mile from where (and so only a few seconds before) the farewell flight passed over our intersection. I didn't have a camera handy, but Mr. Letterman's snap gives a pretty good sense of how low the Endeavor was flying. We were standing more directly underneath the flight path: as it passed overhead we had a curb's-eye view of the 747's underbelly.

Back up in our office ten or fifteen minutes later we caught a second glimpse from our windows as the flight took a run north along Berkeley's bayshore marina, having circled over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city of San Francisco (where a colleague's wife had a fantastic view from their third-floor deck in the Mission), and the Bay Bridge.

Here's a video taken by a staff member at UC Berkeley's Public Affairs Office. She appears to be standing just off the southwest corner of the campus, about halfway between where the photograph above was snapped, and where I stood. The video gives a better sense of the angle I had on the flyover a few blocks further north.

Awesome as the sight of the shuttle was on Friday, I've certainly asked my share of skeptical questions about the space program over time. Is NASA worth the millions invested in its work? Is the agency's real mission the militarization of space? Would we do better to grapple with what's broken here on Earth than to focus on other planets and stars?

In the Endeavor's particular case: Does Los Angeles really have to cut down 400 trees to move the shuttle overland to its berth at the California Science Center?

These are all valid questions. But on Friday morning, as the product of some of the most advanced and complex engineering ever achieved by humankind flew overhead, almost near enough to touch, I have to admit those questions were relegated to background noise for this gape-mouthed spectator.

Perhaps Mike Kepka got it right about our susceptibility to technology, in his SF Chronicle piece yesterday, Screen Time addicts. The article muses about smartphone zombies -- those people who stare at their screens in public, in utter thrall, ignoring the world around them. Here's an excerpt:
[...] Every sidewalk, every street corner, every bus stop now has smartphone dropouts. Heads dip at a 45-degree angle as they lock into the tiny screens, oblivious to their surroundings, the community tuned out, their best friends in the palms of their hands.

"If I'm outside, I'm on the phone looking down," Bob Glasman said as he checked a message in Hallidie Plaza while on break from selling shoes in the mall. "San Francisco is getting less friendly — that's what it's about. I used to walk and say hello to everyone. … Keeping my head down is a better option."

"I became numb to it. It just became the norm," said Gerard Taguiam, 31, moments after checking his Instagram for the 50th time that day. "We are so detached now. It's the only way my friends and family can keep up with me. We are so busy and we don't really have time to interact. It's the only way that we can stay connected."

"Technology is a part of our evolution as a species. We are sort of addicted to this process," said Dedrick Reid, 34, an independent systems designer in San Francisco who was focused on his iPhone while riding a Muni bus down Market Street.

"It's an unfortunate consequence of being excited about technology," Taguiam said. "It's also an unfortunate convergence of lifestyle, communications, entertainment and information. All this stuff is sitting on your device, so you're locked in. It becomes your world."

I didn't feel the same watching the last of the space shuttles fly off into the sunny south of California as I do during Fleet Week each year, when the Blue Angels thunder over downtown San Francisco. Military might gives me no warm-and-fuzzies.

But as the Endeavor flew over my alma mater, that olde tyme inner-geek was firing on all cylinders.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Moon landing: through a ten-year-old's eyes on 20 July 1969
April showers brought May flowers

Thanks to Doug Letterman for the image of the Endeavor over downtown Berkeley, on the morning 21 Sept 2012.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The controversy machine v the reality machine

Last week a Facebook friend (what would we do without them, thanks EC) linked to a substantial Vanity Fair profile of the POTUS, Obama's Way, written by Michael Lewis. I read it end-to-end, and found it an impressive portrait.

Make no mistake: I see plenty of shortcomings in our current president's current term of office: his failed promise to close Guantanamo and end the U.S. government's dark engagement with torture and indefinite detention; 'normalization' of assassination by unmanned drone; health care reform that fell far short of Single Payer (but there's always the next couple of decades to clean that up, right?); a failure to restore tax rates to Clinton-era levels, minimum; a bank bailout that failed to radically tighten regulatory oversight of rapacious Wall Street firms, whose unconstrained and short-sighted greed set the world sliding into the Great Recession. And so on.

But what impressed me about Lewis's profile -- the more so in contrast to the buffoonish team nominated by the G.O.P. to lead the United States government for the next four years -- is Barack Obama's fitness to perform the job that this moment in history calls for, the leadership that today's reality demands.

What is that reality?

Let's take a detour. Earlier this month, KQED radio's It's Your World replayed a discussion that took place on 31 March 2012, From Longitudes to Latitudes: Is There a Rising South-South Economic Zone? Participant Uri Dadush, Director of the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke on the topic of a key (though certainly not sole) aspect of 21st century reality: the current economic revolution.
People like to think of a revolution like the French Revolution, occurring on a particular date, but in fact revolutions are typically thirty to forty year processes before that symbolic date and after that symbolic date. And in that sense we're in the middle of a revolution where a very large part of the developing world is catching up in a historic process by absorbing, essentially, by absorbing technologies which the advanced countries invented or an accelerated level of technology, which occurred at some time during the industrial revolution, which itself was a thirty to forty year process about two hundred plus years ago [...]
Dadush explains his projections of shifting trade balances -- which he describes as conservative estimates -- in which trade directly between developing countries, now about 15% of all global trade, will become 40% of total global trade by about 2050. Moreover, he sees a world in which:
China, even under very conservative assumptions, much slower rates of growth than what we have seen recently, nevertheless becomes the center of world trade. Virtually every country in the world has China as its main trading partner.
This economic reality revolution is perhaps most striking, in Dadush's telling, when considering the world's largest economies:
[...] by 2050, six of the seven largest economies of the world will be developing economies, today's developing economies, according to my projections, which, again, I think are conservative. Even today, four of the largest seven economies of the world are, in international prices, at U.S. prices, are developing countries: Russia, Brazil, China, [and] India. And, by 2050, only the United States among the advanced countries will be in the top seven, and they will be number two, after China.
This is reality that demands the type of leadership that the Barack Obama profiled by Michael Lewis is suited to provide. From Obama's Way, here are excerpts from a section about two-thirds of the way through the profile, in which the POTUS has called a meeting, in 2009, soliciting advice about whether and how to engage in the then-emerging revolution against Muammar Qaddafi's government in Libya:
In White House jargon this was a meeting of "the principals," which is to say the big shots. In addition to Biden and Gates, it included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon (who had organized the meeting), and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (on a video screen from New York). The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. "Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates," says one participant. "They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view." Says another person at the meeting, "He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do."

Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qaddafi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. "The intelligence was very abstract," says one witness. "Obama started asking questions about it. 'What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?'" It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they'd be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to "cleanse Libya, house by house.") The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. "He instantly went off the road map," recalls one eyewitness. "He asked, 'Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?'" After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, "I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room."

Asked if he was surprised that the Pentagon had not presented him with the option to prevent Qaddafi from destroying a city twice the size of New Orleans and killing everyone inside the place, Obama says simply, "No." Asked why he was not surprised -- if I were president I would have been -- he adds, "Because it’s a hard problem. What the process is going to do is try to lead you to a binary decision. Here are the pros and cons of going in. Here are the pros and cons of not going in. The process pushes towards black or white answers; it’s less good with shades of gray. Partly because the instinct among the participants was that … " Here he pauses and decides he doesn’t want to criticize anyone personally. "We were engaged in Afghanistan. We still had equity in Iraq. Our assets are strained. The participants are asking a question: Is there a core national-security issue at stake? As opposed to calibrating our national-­security interests in some new way."
Shades of grey and constant recalibration are what leaders grapple with if they're leading on any large scale at all. Axis of evil may make a concise sound-byte; pretending that Russia is still the United States' "Number one geopolitical foe" twenty-three years after the Soviet Union collapsed may play to those who long for a simplistic world-view -- but reality is more complicated than that.

Michael Lewis again, on Obama's decision about intervention in Libya in 2009:
All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, "We don't need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening." Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn't have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, "It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was "Why aren't you doing anything?" The next it was "What have you gotten us into?" As one White House staffer puts it, "All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That's because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine."
That one White House staffer only got it right if s/he was speaking about the news media and campaign buffoonery. Because in the actual, nuanced world, the world we actually inhabit, the reality machine will most certainly outlast the controversy machine. And then some.

Thanks to the Library of Congress via Parhamr and Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Miehle Printing Press and Manufacturing Company, circa 1905.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Post-convention blues (the sky, I'm sayin')

I am not a television person, and over the past couple of weeks I watched very little of either the Republican or Democratic Party conventions in real time. What I saw, I saw streamed over the intertubes, most of it after-the-fact.

I also read a lot of transcripts, and way more punditry than could have possibly been good for me. (You'll be relieved to know that I'm not going to add my punditry to the surfeit that's already out there.)

But despite my carefully-limted exposure to the hoopla, I'm relieved as heck to come up for air now that both parties' parties are over. I can't imagine enduring a full measure of convention fever like all the poor souls who were paying close attention. Let alone the attendees!

I've never met a poll I could trust, or a post-convention bounce that meant much of anything. I'm predisposed to believe Joe Garofoli's lede in an above-the-fold front page article published in yesterday's SF Chronicle, Economy is key as voters pay attention, in which he asserts that the net effect of both parties' conventions on the electorate seems to have left the presidential race in ... wait for it ... a statistical dead heat.

[An aside: yes, I do derive pleasure from describing a newspaper article in terms that make clear it was printed, on paper, using actual ink and presses. There is more to life than its digital representations, no? On-line, Garofoli's article is titled Critical time in presidential campaign.]


It was a lovely post-conventions weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now that Labor Day is behind us we can get on with the summer that never seems to arrive on-time under our local summers' marine-layered fogs. The skies were blue, the cacti were blooming (yes, those are cactus flowers at telephone-line level at the top of this post, a cropped view of a very very very tall plant on a residential street, a few blocks south of UC Berkeley, that is locally renowned for its front-yard cactus gardens ... see the zoomed-out photo below).

So as we leave convention fever behind, and gird our loins for two solid months of attack ads (pity the poor citizens in the so-called swing states ...), I want to give a shout out to Jimmy Fallon, for his right-on-the-RMoney spoof of James Taylor's classic tune, Fire and Rain:

As I wrote in a re-post to my Facebook friends (thanks to AK for the link!), I'm tagging Fallon's spoof as both silly and hilarious. But most importantly, it's pitched at a level of political anti-discourse I can tolerate as we turn our backs on Tampa and Charlotte.

It's certainly a lot more relaxing to take a sunny walk, after brunch at a local café, than it is to watch old men talking to empty chairs, or young women talking about old men who are profoundly disrespectful of their freedom, independence, and health. I'm going to try to remember that as the Bay Area's late summer stretches through September and into October. Maybe even longer ... or shorter ... what with climate change and El Niño both confounding expectations.

At left you can see the house-high cactus from which the close-up above was taken. The waning crescent moon at the right side of the image was lovely in real life; one regrets (and expects) that its digital representation isn't nearly so vivid. Alas.

As the POTUS himself said in his convention speech on Thursday night, I know campaigns can seem small, even silly sometimes. Oh, yes they can...

I wish the entire United States of America the very best in avoiding donkey doo-doo and elephant poop in what's shaping up to be the shrillest, most over-funded run-up ever to a presidential election.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics
The Affordable Care Act in two essential points
April showers brought May flowers

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Barry McGee mid-career survey at UC Berkeley art museum

The University Art Museum at UC Berkeley is currently hosting a mid-career survey of the artist, tagger, and activist Barry McGee. From the museum's on-line description of the show:
McGee, who trained professionally in painting and printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, began sharing his work in the 1980s, not in a museum or gallery setting but on the streets of San Francisco, where he developed his skills as a graffiti artist, often using the tag name “Twist.” [...] Using a visual vocabulary drawn from graffiti, comics, hobo art, and sign painting, McGee celebrates his Mission District neighborhood while at the same time calling attention to the harmful effects of capitalism, gentrification, and corporate control of public space. His often-humorous paintings, drawings, and prints -- all wrought with extraordinary skill -- push the boundaries of art: his work can seem refreshingly informal in the gallery but surprisingly elegant on the street.

McGee has long viewed the city itself as a living space for art and activism, but his more recent work has brought the urban condition into the space of the gallery. Increasingly, his installation environments express the anarchic vitality of the inner-city street, incorporating overturned cars and trucks, and often spill beyond the frame of the gallery or museum.

Like (and, in fact, alongside) Matthew Felix Sun, McGee's work came prominently onto my radar a couple of years ago in New York City, where we stayed for a week a few blocks from a large and vigorously beautiful wall at Bowery and Houston that was covered in the artist's graffiti (image at right).

Excitement about the UAM show was palpable as McGee and his assistants took over multiple floors of the museum this summer. Borrowing from Matthew's post of 23 August, Getting Ready for Barry McGee at Berkeley Art Museum, you can see in the photos below how the museum's open spaces were transformed into a muscular, dynamic artist's workshop from which anything might emerge. While under construction, it looked as though whatever the show turned out to be stood a pretty good chance of being straight-up fascinating.

The show opened on 24 August, and Matthew and I stopped by the UAM this past weekend. I wish I could say I enjoyed McGee's work more than I did ... but here's the thing: the vitality of the show's construction had been flattened by the time the galleries were opened to visitors. The museum blurb quoted above claims that McGee's "installation environments express the anarchic vitality of the inner-city street"; I wasn't convinced.

The four-man tagging team teetering on one another's shoulders atop the on-its-nose van on the museum's ground floor was good for a brief chuckle. But after I watched for a few seconds the joke was over. The spectacle didn't stand up to scrutiny. Yet the topmost dummy's electric-motor-driven arm pretended to spray a gray concrete overlook interminably, in the same repeating arc, and after another minute or two the piece (not to mention the drone of McGee's motor mechanisms echoing off the building's hard walls) had become ... well ... annoying.

Even a change of angle didn't extend my interest.

Overall, my takeaway was that graffiti art belongs on the streets, not confined inside museum walls. What's more, I don't believe McGee thinks differently. I think he knows that graffiti in galleries is, to put it plainly, masturbatory.

The evidence that this is McGee's perspective, and not only mine? Check out R. Fong's bodega, a featured element of the UAM installation, visible in first photo beneath the New York graffiti wall, above. Now take an 8-second look at the view through the window behind the bodega:

McGee's work will be on exhibit at the University Art Museum through December 9, 2012.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Jim Campbell's "Exploded Views" at SFMOMA
Richard Serra's "Sequence" at the Stanford Art Museum
Shape, stone, seeing: Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Michael Ondaatje