The Atomization of Information

Glitch: Screenshot as the 2012 documentary "Payback" hiccuped while streaming.Glitch: Screenshot as the 2012 documentary "Payback" hiccuped while streaming.

I've written previously about the aesthetic tension between deliberation and untamed flourish. Today I streamed the keynote address of the latest Doomsday Clock Symposium, in which curator Kerry Brougher, drawing from such works as "Godzilla" and the paintings of Max Ernst and even Jackson Pollock that mid-century art consciously and unconsciously strove to depict the character -- tantalizing, horrific, awe-inspiring -- of atomic power. His talk begins at the 18-minute mark of this video.

The ramifications of the violent entry to the Atomic Age gave purpose to art. Strictly a bonus was the raw, unwieldy beauty of the explosions themselves. The men who managed to film early tests almost necessarily had documentary art on their hands. Their work makes up some of the finer exhibits at the National Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas. Also, on YouTube:

(That film is silent. Suggested musical accompaniment: "Too Real" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and/or "Take Ecstasy With Me" by !!!.)

The Brougher keynote reminded me of the screenshot I took some time ago of a psychedelic hitch in a streaming video. Those are pixels without purpose; the actual scene, of rural Albania, visible at the top, could scarcely be more drab. Like the luminescent trails of burning dust captured on film at Los Alamos, the cascades of candy shades are only worth preserving if you have an affinity for color and swirl.

For as much as we've come to moderate media, the Digital Age can yet churn up its own aesthetic serendipity. To call it art is to diminish the artist's role in figuring out how to greet this rising ocean of zeros and ones, just as artists sixty years ago were reckoning hard with humanity's new-found ability to exterminate ourselves. But when a glimpse into the void is so fetching, it's hard not to gawk a spell.

Blond ambition

Since finishing school I’ve been mucking out my laptop to flush out the digital detritus lingering from two years of graduate study. (Note: These leftovers are plentiful and mostly pointless. If the thought of paying to accumulate pointless, plentiful documents for two years unsettles you in any way, please reconsider your grad school application and continue living as a grown-up instead.) One of my research interests in my first year of study was the founding of Greenpeace in the same Vancouver neighborhood, or nearly, where I've been living for the past couple of years. Among the old newspaper microfilm that I scoured in late 2010 was a page I didn’t examine for much more than Greenpeace news. It’s page 4 of the Globe & Mail from Sept. 21, 1971, a Tuesday. In the bottom corner there’s this double-take-worthy brief that shows just how differently (mostly) young women in politics were depicted 40 years ago.

The photo ran directly above the article in the paper. In case the image isn’t clear enough, here’s the story:

Blonde seeks Liberal ticket for High Park

Laima Svegzda, a blue-eyed blond law student, believes she has what it takes to unseat New Democrat Party member Dr. Morton Shulman in High Park.

Last night, Miss Svegzda, 23, slipped her arm around Liberal Leader Robert Nixon and confidently announced that on Monday she will seek the Liberal nomination in High Park. She is the only volunteer to step forward.

“I just think that it’s time to get in there,” she said. “I think I have a lot of things going for me, I have an ethnic background (Lithuanian). I’m young, I’m female and I have a strong feeling of what the various ethic groups want.”

Miss Svegzda spent the summer as director of a legal information drop-in centre in the city’s west end. Most of the work involved dealing with people of various ethnic backgrounds who did not know their legal rights.

What about Dr. Shulman? “I haven’t met him yet, but from what I’ve heard and read, he’s a gentleman.”

Can a law student afford to run an election campaign? Miss Svegzda smiled. “I have a lot of heart. It’s not the size of the wallet that counts, you know.”

To be absolutely fair to the Globe & Mail, she doesn’t exactly come across as an intellectual heavyweight in the interview — pretty much par for any 23-year-old. To continue being absolutely fair to the Globe & Mail, its headline is a disgrace and the article is but a scant improvement.

It got me wondering what happened to Miss Svegzda. A further news search turned up only a few more mentions of her in Canadian papers, all in the 1970s. In 1978 she was identified in a story as the acting director of conciliation and compliance for the Ontario Human Rights Commission; the following year, she was identified as the commission’s administrator.

Best else I could find on her was this exchange from the Ontario legislature on February 29, 1972. If the good Dr. Shulman is to be understood here, his reputation as a gentleman is in some question. If he does tip his hat to her, he uses his left hand:

Mr. Shulman: Well it was an interesting
election campaign, Mr. Speaker. The Liberal
candidate was especially interesting. She was
a beautiful young lady. Her name was Laima
Svegzda.

Mr. R. F. Nixon (Leader of the Opposi-
tion): When I saw her, I thought you were
in trouble.

Mr. Shulman: Well when I saw her I knew
I was not in trouble, because it was going
to be a delightful campaign and it was. And
I will campaign with her, for her or against
her at any time.

Mr. P. G. Givens (York-Forest Hill): Would
the member say it was a bust?

Mr. Shulman: She was a delight, let me
say. This is the way politics should be.

In a way I was hoping she would be
elected so I could converse with her across
the floor, but there were difficulties in
arranging that. It was a pleasure campaigning
with Miss Svegzda.

I am afraid the Liberals didn't take her
campaign quite as seriously as I did unfor-
tunately. They gave her only $1,000 for the
campaign, and when they gave her this sum
they said: "Miss Svegzda, we have great
news for you. We have got $1,000 for you,
and not only that we have got a promise
from the Toronto Star of a full front-page
spread with your picture on it, which is
good for thousands of votes." And they de-
livered on both their promises. They got the
full front-page spread; they gave her the
$1,000. When that was gone, on the second
day, she called them up and said: "What do
I do now?" And they said: "Well, that's it.
You spent all there is. That's your problem."

So her campaign didn't go too well, al-
though it was of some advantage, let's say.

Mr. Givens: Would the member say it was
a bust?

Mr. Shulman: I thank the member for
York-Forest Hill. Her campaign was a mag-
nificent bust. It didn't go too well, but it got
great crowds out for our all-candidate meet-
ings.

The Lasting Value of a Conscientious Tag

Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012
I come today to praise the guerilla nutritionists.

Two blocks from my house, in a staid and wealthy section of Vancouver, there stands a Safeway with a brick wall between its parking lot and the residential block behind it. About a week ago, at its corner, by a cut-through, a utility truck appeared. Whether it was fiddling with the power or faddling with the water, I haven’t a clue. It was big and loud. The next time I walked past that corner there were two stencils on the brick: “Eat Yo” and “Carrots.” I imagined a scenario in which working men in hard hats and thunderclop boots posed as gas servicers and as a cover for Kryloning public walls in nothing-stirring neighborhoods. More likely, some lone-wolf carrot lover took it upon him(playing the odds here)self to spray a DIY root vegetable advert at the grocery’s northwest flank. By the shallowest of definitions, and maybe a few less so, it constitutes vandalism. Yet it’s also absurdist, harmless and, in its casual marmishness, perhaps even benevolent — graffiti as public service.

It would be easy to argue that virtually any form of tagging undertaken with a sense of aesthetic could qualify as art. Most of the wrist-garble that people tend to slap onto buildings, sidewalks, bus stops, bathroom tile, bike racks, lamp posts, subway posters, staircases, parking blocks, road signs, overpasses, fallen timber, construction debris and anything else that will hold a Sharpie stroke doesn’t rise to the level of art, even if, in a certain subversive sense, it recalls the tenacity of dandelions growing out of frost fissures in a sidewalk. A city can be a hard place to live, and quells expression. The building has been done already. Your ingenuity, while cute, is really just an affectation, and when you’re done Instagramming your latest restaurant meal, you can just Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012go plug yourself back into the egg-carton cubicle hive where your expanding ass has been wedged. Art doesn’t have anything at all to say unless someone doesn’t want to hear it. By actively defacing private or public property, and risking personal harm in the doing, the artist rattles the viewer by reminding him or her that this environment is a construct. It was made. As it could be done, it can thus be undone.

This isn’t necessarily anarchic; at its best, that aim cuts across the ruts that we all lull ourselves into. In that, art gives. Yet even the best of it risks and in fact nearly demands removal. If left indefinitely to linger, to provoke, then what message does that send to the vandal? To the world at large? Enough notoriety, and the vandal is hailed, celebrated, protected. The vandal becomes a Banksy. With that, order is forfeited.

A bit of self-defense is then in order. Aesthetics are a great place to start, for even the most gruel-blooded bureaucrat can be inspired to overlook a piece of obvious beauty. As in life at large, the best-looking among us survive longest. Art, too, propagates its genes. For the past year, at least, this piece has graced a low wall outside the student center at the University of British Columbia, innocuously fading with constant strobe of rain and sunshine, left for the moss to determine its lifespan. I believe the artist (“xo,” it’s signed) chose this canvas to reward the keen lookers among the studentry and to make itself a small target. It’s also a tiny aesthetic triumph. In all, it is impossible to scorn.

“Eat Yo / Carrots” is also attractive, I think, but it’s also at eye-level on strongly contrasting brickwork on private property. Its death warrant was signed when the paint still stank. Unless … well, unless someone decides that to erase “Eat Yo / Carrots” would be to denounce carrot-eating generally. Why, who wants to be seen as anti-vegetable? What example does that set? The conscientious vandal perhaps is no vandal at all. When we read “Eat Yo / Carrots” the lasting impression in our mind is probably beneficial, at some level. It’s not “Eat Yo / Mama” or even “Eat Yo / Twix.” It’s a message that Michelle Obama would endorse, if perhaps not a medium.

Look around and this stuff is actually somewhat common in Vancouver, where social disruption comes with a teaspoon of irony and a pinch of Canadian / West Coast bonhomie. Not a mile down University Boulevard from “Eat Yo / Carrots,” at the end of a gentle but lengthy hill on the westbound side of the road is a series of stencils in the bike path that say A Hill / With A Bike On It / Stands / A Little / Taller. The last one, seen here, appears just as the dogged rider can see the crest. There’s no other rise of any consequence on the way to the university. At this point, you can shift to your highest gear and simply cruise, which is congratulations enough. But the street tags (which I only assume are unsanctioned) provide a bit of breeze at your back. Anyone who would be in a position to see them would appreciate them. In claiming an unmarked stretch of road and turning it into a canvas for the forces of good, some vandal managed to turn public space into public art. And if you know it’s there, you look forward to it, a carrot to get you through your commute.

UBC: shot Feb. 13, 2012UBC: shot Feb. 13, 2012

The whammy, unpacked

Las Vegas: Shot August 14, 2010Las Vegas: Shot August 14, 2010Late last year a gang of far-flung sports-type writers and editors gathered donations from dedicated Kickstarterers and launched a site that, to date, has done a fine job sounding unlike any other sports journalism/opining in the blabberether. I'm biased toward The Classical in part because it has the boutique feel of a group of writers who are writing for one another, and it doesn't stop to overexplain jokes or to point at itself (WHOA, LOOK! THERE'S MY NAVEL AGAIN!) or really to screw around with much that its authors don't find compelling. The filthy secret of most journalism is that most of it is written by people who don't find the particular topic of the day of particular interest; I mean, what are the odds that every single piece of news fascinates its author? That is, unless you don't ask people to write stories that don't fascinate them. Then you might get original pieces on southeast Asian boxing camps and on Woody Paige's slackadaisical space-cadetism instead of the transactional minutiae that clogs most news feeds.

I'm biased toward the Classical, too, because it ran a piece of mine I'd been kicking around for a while: a look at intimidation, viewed specifically through the lens of "the whammy," a term that stood out to me in the Joseph Heller novel "Something Happened" when I read it in high school. The short version is, some jocks, like the office drones in Heller's book, leverage a bevy of psychological tactics to establish informal hierarchies. The point of doing this is to achieve power, and in sports, it's to better clobber people. If you can get the whammy on an opponent, my thinking goes, it's at least as good as being a step faster.

You can read the original piece here. I want to add that the sports psychologist I spoke with for the piece, Arnold LeUnes, who was quite gracious with his time, sent a coda that should append the piece. I posited that one feature of the whammy is to move an opponent's "locus of control" from internal to external. (This can inspire feelings of helplessness, which is quite a handy thing when you want to kick someone's ass.) LeUnes told me I overshot a bit on my descriptions of internal vs. external locus of control: "While there are some who have found a relationship between an external locus and depression, I am not sure that is a widely endorsed view among psychologists. It is quite adaptive in sports and life to remember that coaches, parents, police, professors, and priests all exert a lot of influence on our lives. An external locus can reflect an awareness of external influences and thus may be a good thing and actually a deterrent to depression. I am not saying that the relationship is not there, but I would not sell it quite as enthusiastically as you have. My 2 cents worth." So carry that in your pocket as you consider the whammy.

I'm also going to add below some of the essay's b-sides, at the unwitting suggestion of writer Patrick Hruby, who listed the whammy piece among his favorite sportswriting of 2011. Hruby wrote: "My only problem with this piece is that it wasn’t longer; I suspect a writer with more time and a bigger travel budget could dig up much more." I did find two other whammy depictions in the course of reporting, but they were discursive enough that they were dropped on the way to the final draft. Here they are:

The whammy is the necktie stain of sports; once you notice it, you cannot unsee it. When Notre Dame’s NCAA-record streak of 43 wins over Navy ended in 2007, Navy linebacker Matt Wimsatt’s post-game quotes were just caked in whammy. “I can’t wait to talk to everybody back home,” he said. “This is definitely bigger than just one football game.”

You can’t explain a number like 43 years as pure whammy. In most of those years, Notre Dame was demonstrably good and Navy was borderline to bad. I count only 14 years during that streak in which Navy even had a winning record. But in nine of those years, the Midshipmen had a final record equal to or better than the Irish, even with that annual matchup always going to the Irish. Even a nine-game win streak between two teams of similar capabilities is approaching whammy territory. Forty-three in a row is desperate.

When that streak finally broke, it took an eventual 8-5 Navy team three overtimes to beat an eventual 3-9 Irish team (coincidentally the worst team in South Bend since that 1963 squad that counted one of its two wins over a 9-2 Navy team, thus launching the streak). In 2008 the Irish beat Navy by 6, apparently righting the balance. Then, in 2009, a decent Navy team rolled into South Bend and beat a ranked Notre Dame squad that was favored by 11. In 2010, with the Irish favored by a touchdown, Navy drilled them by 18.

From 0-43 to 3-1. That’s not coincidence; it’s an exorcism.

***

In hindsight, so much of coaching seems aimed at getting athletes not to learn helplessness. Every great upset in history shows the fruits of that refusal, which is at the heart of avoiding the whammy. As soon as Goliath got his ass beaten at the line of scrimmage in the Valley of Elah, despite his prodigious whammy on the Israelites, coaches have tried to un-teach learned helplessness. The result is that 90 percent of coaching advice is just contra-whammy, trying to undermine doubt and instill bulletproof swagger. (The other 10 percent is partially coaches who do nothing but exert petty whammy-advantage over their players. LeUnes recalls an old A&M coach who treated his subordinates thusly and lost consistently. The coach’s successor remarked, upon taking over the program, that he’d never before seen such a collection of whipped dogs.) Quoth Mark Twain: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.” The whammy corollary: Belittle your opponents’ ambitions.

Confidence is the anti-whammy. Whereas whammy inspires you not to bother, confidence is that quality that doesn’t care that you shouldn’t bother. It, like the whammy, is often irrational but feeds on the rational. Coaches love to talk about confidence, and to get their players talking about it. How better for a grown man to convince a bunch of college kids that running laps will give them magical powers?

John Wooden was just bursting with these hardwood fortune-cookie slogans — gleeful hatcheteer Tommy Craggs once called him a “cornpone oracle” whose every utterance “seemed destined to be cross-stitched on a throw pillow” — about tenacity, ability, hard work and a bunch of other yadda yadda meant to herd 6-foot-6, 20-year-old cats into making the extra pass. Yet we can turn to Wooden for insight into the whammy. Quoth the coach: “Motivating through fear may work in the short term to get people to do something, but over the long run I believe personal pride is a much greater motivator.”

The steps here for you, dear whammymaker, are plain. If you want to outplay or outcoach someone, instill in that person the opposite of what Wooden would want for them. The whammy knows this instinctually, and it attacks pride. One fine illustration of this comes to us via another Los Angeles icon, Marcellus Wallace, who owes his best lines to Quentin Tarantino. When he sits Butch Coolidge down to put the fix in, as Al Green croons in the background, he issues a full-blown whammy to the aging boxer:

Marcellus: I think you gonna find – when all this shit is over and done – I think you gonna find yourself one smilin’ motherfucker. Thing is Butch, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don’t last. And your days are just about over. Now that's a hard motherfuckin' fact of life, but that's a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta get realistic about. See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar? It does. If you mean it gets better with age? It don’t. ’Sides, Butch. How many fights you think you got in you anyway? Hm? Two? Boxers don’t have an old-timers day. You came close, but you never made it. And if you were gonna make it, you would have made it before now. (Holding out an envelope of cash.) You my nigga?

Butch: It certainly appears so.

Marcellus: The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fuckin' wicht you. Fuck. Pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps. You fight through that shit. ’Cause a year from now, when you kickin' it in the Caribbean, you gonna say to yourself, "Marsellus Wallace was right."

Butch: I’ve got no problem with that, Mr. Wallace.

Marcellus: In the fifth, your ass goes down. Say it.

Butch: In the fifth, my ass goes down.

Now, if you watch the scene unfold, Vincent Vega, clad in the UC-Santa Barbara Banana Slugs shirt he cribbed from Jimmy after a morning mopping up Marvin’s brains, ample-bellies up to the bar and gives Butch a hard look as the boxer orders a pack of smokes. Butch looks hard at Vince. “You looking at something, friend?” he says. Vincent corrects him: “You ain’t my friend, Palooka.” When he says it, Vince smacks his lips and lets his head sway a smidge, smug to the point of bratty.

Butch is thrown. “What’s that?” he says. Vincent replies: “I think you heard me just fine, punchy,” and leans forward a few inches.

They stare. Marcellus calls Vince away. Butch stays at the bar, and can only watch Vincent saunter off. For the aging boxer, unaccustomed to having paunchy goons meet his gaze a bar, Vince’s cockiness is an affront. Vince knows Butch has been bought, that he’s a puppet. It’s in this moment that, if I were to guess, Tarantino wants us to see Butch’s double-cross formulating. He’s deciding to reclaim his agency. He’s shaking off the whammy.

Except the whammy isn’t the removal of agency: Only physical domination can truly do that, which is why torture is dehumanizing. The whammy is in fact more seductive. It’s the invisible, weightless thing that sweet-talks the whammee to forfeit agency. It does this by promising defeat. In a certain state of mind and body, this is actually a soothing thought. It’s what Vince Lombardi warns against when he says fatigue makes cowards of us all. The whammy is there to punish struggle. And if I may veer androcentric: Men will recognize this condition as metaphorical castration. People use “testicles” as a metonym for gumption because if any body part is responsible for pushing men into and past situations in which the answer is “no,” it is his reproductive organs. Either sex may claim “backbone” or “intestinal fortitude” in place of “stones.” Yet, as I suspect the whammy is chiefly a phenomenon found in male-dominated hierarchies, we can draw a short line from saying “Green’s got the whammy on me” to saying “Green’s clipped my nuts.”

Actually, It's Perfectly Justifiable to Reject the Duggars' Nightmarish Version of Family Planning

Hillsboro, Tenn.: Shot June 16, 2009Hillsboro, Tenn.: Shot June 16, 2009
The normally sensible Mary Elizabeth Williams, of Salon, posted today an emphatic apologetic for the most fertile family in America, the Duggars. It caught me off-guard, because I thought it was fairly common opinion that their relentless drive to reproduce isn't exactly a terrific plan. Like the Duggars, I’m from northwest Arkansas, where we were reading about this sprawling family long before the rest of the country pressed against the glass to gawk at their reproductive prowess. When my mother sent word yesterday that they’re now expecting their t … w … e … n … t … i … e … t … h child, I wrote her back in a bit of a flurry:

Imagine if each of those kids went and took the same attitude toward reproduction as their parents:

One generation: 20 kids.
Second generation: 20 parents x 20 kids each = 400 grandkids
Third generation: 400 parents x 20 kids each = 8,000 great-grandkids
Fourth generation: 8,000 parents x 20 kids each = 160,000 great-great-grandkids
Fifth generation: 160,000 parents x 20 kids each = 3.2 million great-great-great grandkids (greater than the population of Arkansas)

Now, this assumes that in each of these generations, they continue to find people outside their family to marry. (Obviously when you have 160,000 distant cousins running around, some of these might cancel one another out.) Still, at this rate this family line alone would, assuming a 20-year generation, create a living family that surpasses the current population of China, Canada and California combined by the year 2130.

Aw, letters home to Ma! As admittedly cludgy as these calculations are, they're my attempt to wrap my head around such profligate babymaking. Williams skips that consequence of 20-child families in her piece, “Stop Judging the Duggars,” which carried the infinitely charitable deck, “So what if they're expecting again? A family of 20 is just another side of reproductive choice.” Williams is justified in defending the family against some of the nastiest of the Internet slimers who make cracks about Mrs. Duggar’s anatomy and about the family generally. The Duggars are people, after all — a lot of people, at that — and while the parents are clearly not interested in availing themselves of the advances in modern contraception that have been made over the past 10,000 years, their kids still deserve to be able to Google themselves.

But as we pass 7 billion people on this increasingly hot, increasingly crowded blue marble of ours, this quibble about multiplying the species isn’t academic. It’s one of the great tasks facing humanity: Where in the hell is everyone going to live, and what are they going to eat? What pressures will those demands put on ecosystems, on farmland, on water supplies? What weaker nations will succumb to poverty and war as stronger nations take those essentials by force? Williams would probably not be so amenable to a family famous for driving a singularly spectacular monster truck that got one mile to the gallon. So why’s she feeling so charitable toward a family intent on putting 20 (or 400 or 8,000) more cars and trucks on the roads?

To put it as lightly as possible: We owe the continued existence of human civilization as we know it to the fact that the Duggars do not represent the mainstream of family planning. It's very healthy to acknowledge this fact. You just don't have to act the thorough jackass in doing so.

For a consideration more sober than the Duggars’ on how parents will determine the fate of the frickin’ world, please read Bill McKibben’s essay “The Case for Single-child Families,” about his decision, rooted in considerations of faith and geography alike, to get a vasectomy after his first child. We'll close here with an excerpt:

The beginning of Genesis contains the fateful command, repeated elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." That this was the first commandment gave it special priority. And it was biological, too, a command that echoed what our genes already shouted.

But there is something else unique about it—it is the first commandment we have fulfilled. There’s barely a habitable spot on the planet without a human being; in our lifetimes we’ve filled every inch of the planet with our presence. Everywhere the temperature climbs, the ultraviolet penetrates more deeply. … There’s not a creature anywhere on earth whose blood doesn’t show the presence of our chemicals, not an ocean that isn’t higher because of us. For better and for worse, we are everywhere. We can check this commandment off the list.

And we can check it off for happier reasons as well. There’s no denying that we’ve done great environmental damage, but it’s also true that we’ve spread wondrous and diverse cultures, full of love and song, across the wide earth. We should add a holiday to the calendar of every church to celebrate this achievement.

But when you check something off a list, you don’t just throw the list away. You look further down the list, see what comes next. And the list, of course, is long. The Gospels, the Torah, the Koran and a thousand other texts sacred and profane give us plenty of other goals toward which to divert some of the energy we’ve traditionally used in raising large families, goals on which we’ve barely begun. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the oppressed; love your neighbor as yourself; heal the earth. We live on a planet where 3 billion people don’t have clean water, where species die by the score each day, where kids grow up without fathers, where violence overwhelms us, where people judge each other by the color of their skin, where a hypersexualized culture poisons the adolescence of girls, where old people and young people need each other’s support. And the energy freed by having smaller families may be some of the energy needed to take on these next challenges. To really take them on, not just to announce that they’re important, or to send a check, or to read an article, but to make them central to our lives.

Class, Reunion

Perryville, Arkansas: Shot May 21, 2010Perryville, Arkansas: Shot May 21, 2010The 10-year reunion this weekend at Northwestern University underscored a few things about the college experience that awkward, arbitrarily spaced group gatherings have a way of bringing into focus. Herewith, a few:

• June of 2001 was possibly the strangest time in the past 50 years in which to receive a college degree. George W. Bush was still a compassionate conservative, the World Trade Center towers were comfortably vertical, there was no war in Afghanistan … and within six months, the '90sesque world we prepared for had rejoined history.

• No one looks the same after 10 years. We’re fatter, greyer, wrinklier, splotchier — and calmer. More confident. Better-acquainted with successes and failures alike. Whole people, in many regards. Yet certainly none the comelier.

• Football’s a nice centerpiece to a reunion weekend. But it can’t be the only reason people come back to visit the university. Northwestern (and other major research institutions) find they typically have far lower alumni giving rates than liberal arts schools. One reason, I venture, is that big research institutions have no ostensible raison d'etre other than to make their matriculants employable and get them into law/med/business schools. It’s a mechanistic approach to education, and uninspiring. They’d be better off setting out to sculpt and equip the next generation of troublemakers, hellraisers, firebrands and malcontents.

Of course, I’m the fink who inadvertently assisted in turning my j-school graduation into a circus that the Chronicle of Higher Education later saw fit to cover. And even I donate to the school these days. So what do I know.

On Gene Sharp and Alfred Nobel's peace

Manchester, Tennessee: Shot June 14, 2009Manchester, Tennessee: Shot June 14, 2009
. . . . . . . . . . . .

I know it’s just one cryptic article, but there were enough hints dropped in this Associated Press interview with the chairman of the Nobel Peace prize committee that I believe it could just wind up being one of my intellectual heroes, the nonviolence theoretician, historian and back-seat activist, Gene Sharp.

Here’s what the AP reported:

STRASBOURG, France (AP) -- This year's Nobel Peace prize winner is "obvious," the chairman of the prize committee says, and he's surprised that "commentators and experts" haven't picked up on it.

With upheaval in the Arab world and Europe's spiraling debt crisis among the top issues in a turbulent year, Thorbjoern Jagland didn't name the much-anticipated winner who will be announced Friday in Oslo.

But in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Jagland did give a few clues into the thinking of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the prize.

The deadline for nominations was Feb. 1, and committee members could add their own suggestions until Feb. 28. Jagland said it was "not necessarily" too late for consideration of leaders of the Arab Spring revolutions, which toppled Tunisia's longtime autocrat in January and then spread from there.

"We saw many of the (Arab Spring) actors at the time, but that doesn't mean that the prize goes in that direction, because there are many other positive developments in the world," he said.

"The most positive development will get the prize," Jagland said. "So I'm a little bit surprised that it has not been already seen by many commentators and experts and all this because for me it's obvious."

Who the hell knows what “obvious” means. If you look at this odds chart (bless the British, that nation of degenerates) it would seem that “obvious” is Burmese opposition politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who already won a Nobel in 1991. Second on the list is Sima Samar, a human rights advocate in Afghanistan. Sharp is somewhat further down the list.

From my admittedly narrow perspective, Sharp makes an ideal candidate. He refined his analysis of past nonviolent struggles into slender volumes that operate as handbooks for revolt: “From Dictatorship to Democracy” is the gold standard; the subtitle on his 2009 book is “A Guide for Strategic Planning for Action to End a Dictatorship or Other Oppression.” Translated versions of these guides have been shown to influence just about every successful nonviolent and popular uprising of the past quarter-century, at least. For a primer on Sharp, check out this Wall Street Journal profile of him from 2008 and this New York Times piece from earlier this year, when it became clear that the Arab Spring, like the Colour Revolutions before it, were following tactics and patterns described and prescribed by Sharp. A documentary on his work and the ripples it has had on this extraordinary 2011 is just out: “How to Start a Revolution,” by Ruaridh Arrow, posits that Sharp’s recipe for nonviolent revolution is now the dominant approach in overturning dictators today.

Sharp is famous for having distilled the history of nonviolence into a list of 198 discrete varieties of action (although when I met with him last year, he deflected some credit for that catalog by pointing out it’s almost certainly incomplete, now almost 40 years after its creation). That he’s an American is a relief to anyone concerned that America’s projection of power worldwide is primarily via predator drones and SEAL teams. Truly his philosophy is one America was founded upon: that all political power rests ultimately with the consent of the governed, and that dictators, of any size or stripe, can only achieve what their minions carry out. The greatest force for peace in the world may then be sheer disobedience, and in Sharp, resistance has not only its muse but its architect. I wish him luck this Friday, betting odds be damned.

Tarry Nights, City Lights

Suncor Athabasca Tar Sands Operations: shot May 21, 2011Suncor Athabasca Tar Sands Operations: shot May 21, 2011

One of the major advantages student life has over real life, whatever the hell that is, arrives around May and tapers off circa late August or early September. It’s an annual epoch that most people know from childhood as “summer vacation” for so many years that “summer” and “vacation” become synonymous. Kids don’t understand the meaning of the word “vacation” so much — or, at least, we didn’t in my house, where out-of-state trips were rare, camp was something the church crowd did, and I got to see salt water exactly once, during a road trip to Pensacola, before the age of 13. My parents were self-employed, which translates to “always working,” and most of that just to keep a roof overhead and cereal in the pantry. The summer for us, the vacation, was for departures less outward than inner — for reading books and rotting our brains on Nintendo and firing guns and home-making fireworks and watching gameshows and picking ticks out from the waistband of your briefs after a day in the woods. It wasn’t until God invented the driver’s license that summer took on different shades of freedom, but by then, it was a short hop to the perpetual year, in which vacation was haggled for and wrested from employers who would count the very hours of your life and expect you to explore on your own time. The pity of that approach is that there are more corners of the planet than days in which to see ’em. Imagination needs fuel. For that, you gotta leave the office.

So last summer it was a migration from Arkansas to Vancouver (required road miles: 2,200; road miles driven: 6,400). This summer started with a 1,000-mile drive from Vancouver east to Calgary, then north to Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta, the capital of the tar/oil sands development (above) that’s going to keep North America snuggly in carbon-laden fuel long after we should have been forced to come up with better ideas; then back to Vancouver, to Seattle, by air to Oakland, then to Arkansas, then to New York. There I couch-surfed through a monthlong stint on the Times’ video desk before flying back west for Year 2 of grad school. Between May 1, when my previous Vancouver lease ended, and Sept. 6, when I found a new home, I slept in 20 different beds and paid six weeks’ worth of rent. It wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t know generous, beautiful people scattered across the continent.

The clips that came out of this gallivanting were, per usual, unpredictable. Here’s an example of the sort of thing I was helping with at the Times. In the leadup to the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, I assisted the videographer Dave Frank through five shoots of various artists who responded to 9/11 in some fashion. I was responsible for the rough cut of three of those pieces, and after further edits these two emerged most like the draft I put down:

And then there was this piece, for Grantland, about the Calgary Stampede, an event I frankly doubted I’d ever get to attend (too far north) but which, to my humble shock, was actually on my way back to Vancouver (hot damn, straight south!) from the hinterlands of upper Alberta. The final piece came out shorter than I sent it, and one scene in particular I was sorry to lose, because it felt so Stampedey to me. My friends Calyn and Dan and I were knocking back beers in a ginormous tent/venue called Nashville North on the Stampede grounds, mostly feeling three-dude awkward in the midst of this rompin’, stompin’, pearl-snappy country party going on around us. It was too loud to make casual conversation, and none of us were carrying any inclination to have a yell-session with strangers. So we were mostly just schlubbing it, ruminating on how funny it was that all the professional rodeo cowboys we’d interviewed were humble, while all the cowboy hangers-on and hangers-out were nothing more than douchebags from smaller towns, guys clearly as obsessed with image and status as any urban twerp, but with chips on their shoulders to boot.

Actually we were trying to come up with another setting in which a major North American city (population of metro Calgary: 1.3 million, just shy of actual Nashville) turns itself over to cowboy culture for an entire week. Everyone in jeans. Everyone in boots. Everyone in wide-brimmed hats. It works out to a rather large tribute to all things country. That’s when Dan noticed a girl dancing beside us. She was wearing a feather on one earring and a patterned sun dress, and was mouthing the lyrics to the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” (which at that moment was drowning out much hope of conversation) while letting her hands surf above her head. He asked her, sort of redundantly, “Do you like this song?”

Then a guy standing beside her stepped up to us and got snitty. “Do you think any of these three guys can saddle a horse?” he asked the girl and her friends, yelling. We were struck dumb. He was a wiry, sharp-faced young man in a red western shirt, with chin whiskers and cluttered teeth both a shade of dirty blond. He had pegged us, not unfairly, as city mice. He jabbed a finger toward at each of us in turn. “Can you?” he asked me, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Can you? Can you?” He spun, herded his lady friends ahead, and barked to us, with no hint of apology, “Sorry.”

We stood and looked at one another. I was more amused than anything — we had just been talking about these very poseurs! — but Calyn was sore: “I’ve saddled a horse. I should have put him in his place.” Out of sheer surprise or maybe a bit of stoic cowboy code, we lived out our indignity in silence. Blake Shelton’s “Kiss My Country Ass” came on, and the whole place sang along: “You can find me in my camouflage hat / My T-shirt an' cowboy boots / If that don't fit your social class / You can kiss my country ass.” We hung around, finished our beers, and gathered ourselves to head to the train. Outside, rain fell on a Tender Beef stand. I took this crappy picture of it because, well, sometimes you know this is where a story will take a breath, or maybe come to rest altogether.
Calgary, Alberta: shot July 10, 2011Calgary, Alberta: shot July 10, 2011

Hubris, justified

Cypress Mountain: shot March 27, 2011Cypress Mountain: shot March 27, 2011The signs posted at the border when you drive into British Columbia dub this province "The Best Place on Earth." It's the cockiest slogan anywhere outside of South Dakota calling itself "The Sunshine State." But on certain days, when a couple of bridges, a winding mountain pass and a few ski lifts are all that separate the heart of Vancouver from this ridiculous view, the boast seems modest, for it does confine its scope to a single planet.

Ah, science

Eugene, Oregon: Shot Dec. 18, 2010Eugene, Oregon: Shot Dec. 18, 2010

If only we could abandon the conceit that teaching Biblical estimations on the origins of everything belongs anywhere near a science classroom. Kids might as well watch "Star Wars" in our international studies class, or read "The Joy of Cooking" in archaeology.

Quoth the inestimable Wikipedia's entry on "Science," and by extension its myriad editors since it began in October of 2001: "Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning 'knowledge') is an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the world."

Evidence grounded in faith is untestable. It is not scientific. But gather 'round, and we'll discuss the rules of badminton to prep for our trigonometry midterm.