Print called "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" or "Red Fuji" by Hokusai
Asia, disaster

Mount Fuji In Red, After Fukushima

Among the eight vignettes in Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams is “Mount Fuji in Red.” It’s the sixth story, and among the eight dreams, it’s one of the nightmares. It’s a stark, bleak view of a few people discussing——while trying to flee——a nuclear disaster.

Akira Kurosawa: DREAMS (1990) from cinema.antifono on Vimeo.

[Update July 2013: Ugh, someone took down that video. Sorry for the inconvenience. Until I find another version to embed, you can read the relevant script dialogue here.]

I saw this before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, which began just about two years ago. But where the short film might come off as preachy and reflective of some reflexive late-80s anti-nuclear sentiment, it now evokes the anxieties and concerns about nuclear safety that we’ve come to know as Japan’s “safety myth.” That, as the Times summed it up, “Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe.”*

“They told us that nuclear plants were safe,” says the woman in the dream. “Human accident is the danger, not the nuclear plant itself. No accidents, no dangers. That’s what they told us. What liars!”

*Or, rather, as the Japan Times put it after the government’s report on the disaster, the myth required ignoring the possibility of rare but extreme events.

 

 

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art, China, development, environment

Phantom Landscapes: Wherein China’s built environment overtakes the natural one

A few years ago, the China Environmental Protection Foundation worked with advertising firm J Walter Thompson’s Shanghai office on an anti-pollution campaign featuring the work of Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang. Certainly the message here is as relevant today as it was in 2009.

(Click to enlarge)

A couple of the images appear to be from a series Yang calls Phantom Landscape II. While the work here takes off from the old shan shui style of landscape painting (shan means mountain, shui water), I believe these are digital creations. In any case, shan shui is one of the most evocative styles around, and Yang’s take on it is a lot of fun to look at. You can see more at his website.

Below: From a completely different series, A Bowl of Taipei 1
Image of mountains in a bowl by Yang Yongliang.

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Wow! (Or, as the driver initially says, according to a translation in the New Yorker, “What the fuck is that?”)

Surely one of the most interesting things to be seen on the planet these last twenty-four hours is this meteor streaking across the Russian sky, brightening up the Chelyabinsk dawn.

But not everyone is so taken with this astronomical display:

No, way, Jose. I want to believe.

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science

Touchdown on Mars

Here’s something you don’t see every day: The Rover’s eye view of landing on Mars.

Four photos per second snapped by the Mars Descent Imager.

Somebody took the photos, made them full-screen, and smoothed the video out:

And as for just where the rover touched down, as of today, it’s called Bradbury Landing:

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journalism, science

What It Takes To Write About Science: A Lehrer Lesson

The whole Jonah Lehrer thing just keeps unspooling, yielding a trove of new insights, or presumed insights, or see-how-these-details-fit-what-I’ve-said-all-along insights. Lots of insighting.

It’s sparked some soul-searching (ahem, navel-gazing) among the media about just what it means to be a noble, truth-seeking writer or reporter who focuses on science.

One obvious conclusion:

What we need are not journalists and popular writers who turn their hand to science, but scientists who turn their hand to journalism and popular writing.

That, from a scientist. And another obvious conclusion, from a journalist:

This is what happens when journalists major in neuroscience instead of #journalism.

So, that’s settled.

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money

Money Can’t Buy

Once a week, I visit the question-and-answer site Quora, usually prompted by an e-mail newsletter it sends me. And one of the featured questions in my inbox was “What are some things that money can’t buy?

Some pretty obvious answers there: time, true love, a clean conscience, &c. And then there’s this popular answer—which is either bracingly honest or a joke:

Read Quote of Anon User’s answer to Being Wealthy: What are some things that money can’t buy? on Quora

I love this answer. I’m inclined to think that our anonymous interlocutor is revealing a key truth about how the other half (closer to one percent, probably) lives in San Francisco. I’ve never had money enough to live high on a hill in the city, and hadn’t heard of this vexing problem. A quick search turns up one brief about the difficulties of life on the less posh, but still very desirable, Potrero Hill, as noted by the Potrero View in 2010:

Plumbing
For years Potrero Hill residents have complained about low water pressure; apparently they have reason to do so. According to Thomas Friel, who offers plumbing service from his Connecticut Street office, it takes one pound of pressure to raise water two feet uphill, and pressure gets used up as water is pumped higher. Friel said low water pressure is common on the top of the hill, and offered some solutions, including removing devices that restrict water flow, and conserve water, from faucets and shower heads. “You’re not wasting water by removing it,” said Friel, “you actually need more water flow [in] your shower head and faucets to enjoy the same amount of water that your neighbors in the high pressure areas enjoy.” If that doesn’t work, another option is to install a booster pump and pressure tank in the cold water supply to provide extra pressure. Though a more expensive fix, “that will give you a lot better shower,” said Friel.

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irony, journalism

You should check it out.

An exchange I spotted this morning on Twitter:


Good luck finding a copy.

Spotted this morning on Twitter:

Storified by Tim Lesle · Wed, Aug 15 2012 18:38:28

The best ideas come to me when I’m in the showerLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E there’s science behind this.G Ryin G
@GRyin for real? Cause that’s when I think the mostLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E this author, Jonah Lehrer explains it it his book "Imagine: How Creativity Works". you should check it out.G Ryin G
@GRyin yeah I am just cause u said that cause I never think of nothing super dope unless I’m in the showerLIL E

Good luck finding a copy. Jonah Lehrer’s book seems not exactly available. I suppose you could get it at your library, but it might be a while. At my library, at least, there are 50 holds on it.

screenshot showing there are 50 holds on the Imagine book according to the San Francisco library website

And while the media are aflutter over Lehrer and his fact problems, how long does that story take to spread into the wider population? Does it?

In any case, I don’t think the shower point has been discredited.

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money, technology

Whither Flickr?

Several months ago:

A friend then remarked that Flickr’s URLs were annoying (yes), and I added:

Well, Mat Honan at Gizmodo has made me feel a bit better about myself. Turns out, it’s probably not my fault. But I also now feel quite bad for Flickr and all of us who’ve been using it for so many years. As Mat portrays it, the post-acquisition Flickr history is a sad story of personality conflicts and crushing bureaucracy, one that turned a place on the internet that I loved going to into a ghost town—or a Potemkin village in which the activity of your Flickr friends, if they are active at all, are auto-postings done via Instagram or IFTTT. Who’s fault? It’s Yahoo! what done it.

Or not done it, as the story emphasizes—when opportunities to turn Flickr into something better, maybe bigger, came up, Yahoo just kind of stepped on the thing, placed its brand, it’s identity, it’s heavy bureaucratic Yahoo stamp on it.

Indeed, it was the first social network that I really engaged in. Yes, I did sign up for Friendster and added like eight pictures, and I might have a MySpace page that I never did anything with, so I’m actually not sure if I do have one. But Flickr was the one I invested in—and still invest in, paying for the Pro account so as not to lose the accumulated uploads and the comments and favorites and stats that have stuck to them like so many barnacles. Fortunately, there is the tiniest glimmer of hope at the end of the story that maybe Flickr will still be…something. I hope so, anyway.

Is the Flickr case a cautionary tale about what could happen to your startup when somebody bigger swallows it up, which seems to be the preferred exit for many tech entrepreneurs these days? Or just a cautionary tale about how screwed up things at Yahoo can be, even outside the boardroom? (The answers are “yes”, and “sure, why not,” respectively.) Either way, Mat’s story is worth a look:
How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

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China, journalism

The Mike Daisey Almosts

This American Life's retraction notice.One of the interesting results of the retraction of This American Life’s Mike Daisey monologue on the Foxconn factory in China is the shoulda/coulda/woulda-ing of the press corps, particularly those who have some experience covering tech, China, and/or Mike Daisey. After hearing the original broadcast, Marketplace’s China correspondent thought some of the details were odd, and he followed up on his suspicions. Many others, it seems, did not, or were persuaded not to.

A few examples:

    • James Fallows calls it “The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case” and makes good points on how this will hurt Western press in China, and, especially, how the criticisms made by Daisey and others about Foxconn sucks up attention from more egregious labor problems. Fallows also describes having felt a sense of unease about the monologue’s veracity after first hearing it—a point that seems common to these posts.
    • Adrian Chen at Gawker details a sit-down with Daisey last fall to ask him about possible factual inconsistencies. And Daisey completely pulls the wool over his eyes:

      Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.

    • Evan Osnos, for The New Yorker, details all the warning signs that China hands picked up on, and then makes this great point:

But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time. Even driving down the highway exit was sort of plausible. And, more seriously, I feared that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.

In my (extremely limited) experience in China, I’d have to agree that weird things do happen all the time. Within three days of arriving in China for the first time, I was standing on the edge of a new shaft at an illegal coal mine as migrant workers hauled freshly excavated rocks from it. Are illegal coal mines hard to get to? My guess is yes, probably, but my experience was, no, not exactly. At least, not that time.* I can definitely understand Osnos’s semi-suspended skepticism when he heard Daisey’s story.

In these posts, I sense a sort of wistful “one that got away” element. But maybe I’m just projecting how I’d feel were I in their position. Any other examples of Daisey Monday-morning quarterbacking? If so, let me know and I’ll include here.

[Update] Jeff Yang writes for the Journal’s Speakeasy blog about the case, and how he received links to the TAL show from dozens of people, but he was reluctant to share it because he “felt like something was…off.”

[Update #2] Time Out Shanghai interviewed Adam Minter on his skepticism about Daisey’s story. Minter was on the radio show To The Point in February (worth a listen), along with Daisey, and essentially says that the concepts underlying Daisey’s criticisms are a misunderstanding of the situation (at best). He goes on to point out some of Daisey’s inconsistency on his blog. This is the most public rebuke of Daisey’s overaching theme (if not necessarily all the details) that I’ve seen in the wake of that initial TAL broadcast.

Interesting to note that, in a post a few days ago on Minter’s blog, he quotes an email from the NYT’s David Barboza. Barboza described the inconsistencies in his story, and questions This American Life’s factchecking. He also writes, “Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.”

 

 

*It’s important to note that credit for something like this must go to the incredibly skilled Chinese journalists, and sometimes non-journalists, who often work with foreigners in China.

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history, money, technology

Tesla and Morgan

From the Echoes of History Dept:

Around the turn of the last century, Nikola Tesla went to JP Morgan, hat in hand. He needed money to fund this idea he had for wireless technology. Depending on the source you consult, he wanted to communicate wirelessly, or he wanted to actually transmit energy wirelessly. Morgan and some other investors gave him some cash. It was about $150,000 and wasn’t nearly enough. Tesla built a huge tower on Long Island that never really worked. Meanwhile, Marconi broadcast the first trans-Atlantic radio signal. After a few years, JP Morgan wouldn’t give Tesla any more money and the project fell apart. Tesla is supposed to have had a breakdown. Years later Tesla turned over the property to the owner of the Waldorf Astoria, where he had been living. The tower was destroyed and sold for scrap in 1917.

In 2011, an analyst at Morgan Stanley rated Tesla Motors stock as “overweight”, boosting its price about 20 percent. Later that year, Morgan Stanley changed its mind, and the analyst declared that these electric cars were “not ready for prime time.” Tesla stock plunged, erasing the year’s gains. (But, to be fair, only briefly; the stock has rebounded nicely.)

It’s almost purely coincidence, though I supposes there are only so many history-making robber baron bankers whose name can be on the letterhead, and so many crazy pioneers of electricity to inspire the name of your electric car company.

And the lesson, if one can be squeezed from this whisp of nominal historical parallelism, may be that just as Morgan giveth, Morgan taketh away.

***

Below: A 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter. On Page 7 is an article on the destruction of the tower, stating that the tower was removed due to worries that German spies were using the structure.

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music

Three Kinds of Sugar

1. Yesterday, I learned that Wilson Pickett did a cover of the 1969 Archies hit “Sugar, Sugar.” One of the best known examples of the Bubblegum Pop genre, “Sugar, Sugar” actually sounds pretty good when given the Pickett treatment.

2. “Sugar, Sugar,” remains popular at weddings, a grand generalization I base solely on the fact that it played at mine during the cutting of the cake. Our version was by neither Pickett, nor The Archies, but Bob Marley:

Indeed. So two of our favorite singers of all time have covered this song. They do a pretty good job of it, considering what they’ve got to work with. Not that they haven’t gotten a little flack for it from the critics.

3. The song, while certainly catchy (burrows-into- your-brain catchy), was the product of a manufactured band assembled by a producer. Music mogul Don Kirshner formed the group after a split with his earlier creation, The Monkees. Where The Monkees were real people who wanted more artistic control and bridled at the sheen of inauthenticity, The Archies were considerably more malleable given their status as a bunch of cartoon characters (the Archie comics characters, in fact) whose performances were provided by studio musicians. New York Magazine has an interesting little article about the creation of The Archies in ’68, in which Kirshner says that their music will be the type that’s played in clubs, but will appeal to all ages—and by all ages, he means starting with the “2-to-11” year old market. (If you’re familiar with the Kirshner vs Monkees mess, the article has an interesting paragraph in which songwriter Jeff Berry recounts a story that ridicules Monkee Mike Nesmith for having musical pretensions. Nesmith, one of The Monkee’s true musicians, is the bandmember who made their private, internal tensions with Kirshner public.* It also mentions Kirshner’s next project, a collaboration with the film producer Harry Saltzman, that would feature a band composed of “an English guy, a girl, a Negro and a white Southern guy.”**)

As for the origins of these covers? Pickett seems to have covered “Sugar, Sugar” for the same reason he covered a lot of songs during a period in his career (“Hey Jude, “Born to Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”): the pursuit of continued pop success and broad appeal.

Meanhile, Marley’s version is supposed to have come at the suggestion of a producer, the Chinese-Jamaican music mogul Vincent Chin.

*On a purely digressive note, Nesmith was the heir to the Liquid Paper fortune.
**My guess is this became the film Toomorrow, a space musical that starred Olivia Newton-John and by all accounts is a mess.

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