Archive for January, 2008

Civilization!

I can’t take any credit at all for this one.

Cake-Like Chocolate Chip Cookies

I loooooooove chocolate chip cookies. Really I love just about any cookie, but especially ones with chocolate chips in them.  However, I find that the Nestlé recipe or the Hershey’s recipe always comes out flat and crispy, rather than soft and gooey… and I take them out waaaay early, too (probably asking to get salmonella).  After playing around a little, I came up with this variation that yields delicious soft, cake-like chocolate chip cookies. Yum.

2-1/2 c. cake flour

1 t. baking soda

1 t. baking powder

2 t. cinnamon

1 t. salt + pinch more

•••

1 c. (2 sticks) butter, unsalted and at room temperature

1 c. packed light brown sugar

2 eggs

1 t. vanilla (perhaps a teeny bit more)

•••

slightly less than one bag of chocolate chips. I prefer dark chocolate.

1. Set oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Sift (Yes, really SIFT. Don’t just dump and stir.) together the dry ingredients and set aside.

3. Cream together (in a food processor, stand mixer, or with electric beaters is best) butter and sugar until fluffy. Really fluffy. Add in vanilla and eggs one at a time and beat until gooey and slimy- looking.

4. Add dry mixture to wet mixture a little at a time, and mix until just combined (ie: you don’t want loose flour, but you don’t want to over-mix and make the flour all starchy either).

5. Stir in chocolate chips. You can add more, but I usually find myself eating a solid portion of them before they get to the bowl.

6. Drop by rounded tablespoon- fulls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for about 9 minutes, or until the edges turn golden brown.

Makes exactly two-dozen 2-inch round cookies… after you’ve helped yourself to a reasonable portion of the dough.

Insomnia and Rollers

Had difficulty sleeping last night. Spent an hour tossing and turning, got impatient, and got out of bed to waste time. Spent a good 45 minutes reading blogs, looking up a couple of words in Italian that had been used to make a point about ‘translation’ in an article I read (discovered that one of them had been misspelled. gr.), and listened to music. Finally fell asleep to the sounds of my cats purring. Awww.

Got up this morning and (drumroll) rode my bike! Inside. On rollers.

Rollers.

This lovely picture of rollers is from the Saris Cycling Group’s website. I think it indicates very nicely what rollers look like in use.  For a fantastic description of how one actually goes about ‘riding’ these things, see The Fat Cyclist’s excellent explanation. My rollers are nowhere near as nice as his, and I can promise that I don’t ride them nearly as well (or for nearly as long… I managed a half hour this morning).

For one thing, I cannot ride my rollers placed in the center of a room as shown. I need at least one wall nearby to frantically grasp in the event that I swerve side-to-side and fall off, which happens frequently.  So, I put my rollers in the hallway between my bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen, providing a solid grasp of not one but TWO door jams in the event of my losing balance.

The cats found this extremely amusing.  Sofi, the braver and more intelligent of the two, took to getting her kicks by running around me like a maniac while I was riding.  There were a couple of times where she came close to running smack into my spinning wheels. Brilliant.

Spec held back until, urged by Sofi no doubt, he followed suit.  Of course, just as I was starting to ‘sprint’ (as much as you can sprint on those things) they started chasing each other up and down the hallway.

By some kind of miracle, I managed to maintain my balance while keeping an eye on the little rapscallions; I neither fell nor created creamed kitty.  I credit the solid beat provided by “Ok Go: Master the Treadmill” free from iTunes. Meant for treadmill runners, works just as well on a ‘bikemill’ (rollers).

Image and Text

I came across the School of Art and Design’s podcast series online the other day. I was excited, because there had been a lecture on Thursday night that I couldn’t attend because of my teaching obligations. The lecture was by Chaz Maviyane-Davies, a Zimbabwean graphic designer and co-curator of The Graphic Imperative. Unfortunately, the videocast of his lecture wasn’t online yet.

However, an earlier lecture by Xu Bing titled “Between Image and Text” caught my attention. Xu Bing is a graphic artist who works mainly with print-making. His work explores the communicative balance between images and text.

I’m not sure if Xu Bing himself feels this way, but the speaker who introduced him seemed to believe in the limitless ability of the visual to communicate more clearly than the verbal (which she states to a greater or lesser degree). She had first seen one of his scrolls on display at UW Madison (Wisconsin). Xu Bing had spent three years carving 4,000 wooden character-stamps to make the scroll. A non-Chinese-reader would look at the scroll and see nonsense, but assume that a Chinese-reader would find meaning in it.

However, the characters Xu Bing had carved were, in fact, nonsense. They were fake. They did not exist among the thousands and thousands of real Chinese characters floating around in reader/writer repertoires.

So, what does a piece like this say?

The introductor (is there a better word for “one who gives introductions”? I think I made this word up.) suggested that it conveyed the fallacies of ‘official languages,’ because of their manipulability.  First of all, what’s an ‘official language’? A spoken or written code with the backing of an army? In that case, Xu Bing’s work could be taken as a statement against the verbal manipulation by the Chinese governmental propaganda machine during the Cultural Revolution.  “Look, the characters you produce are nonsense, just as my characters here are nonsense!”

I think the piece can be taken to indicate even more so the manipulability of all forms of communication, graphic, verbal, or otherwise, and their dependence on cultural context.  Xu Bing himself brings up the fact that each individual will interpret the piece differently, depending on their understanding of the Chinese writing system.

Non-Chinese-Readers will see Chinese characters, a writing system largely based on graphic icons (ie: the radical that indicates ‘question’ is the shape of an open mouth asking a question. The radical indicating ‘woman’ is two intersecting lines representing a woman holding a child).  Maybe they will assume (as the introductor did) that it is a myth or a poem, based on what they know of Chinese literary tradition.  Just because the characters are based on graphics, doesn’t mean everyone understands them in the same way.  You still base your interpretation on your own cultural context.

Chinese readers might just assume that the characters are traditional, an older form of writing.  Or they might interpret it as a political statement, again depending on their experiences with and understanding of Cultural Revolution propaganda.

Other pieces I found interesting:

Book from the Ground“(2006)- An effort to ‘naturally’ create a ‘universal language’ of graphic icons. *Cringe* Universal? Just because they’re pictures doesn’t make interpretation of them ‘universal’!  From the website: “Icons are ubiquitous symbols providing information without words, antidotes to misunderstanding in the enveloping sphere of world languages in the global electronic network.”

But…. People interpret pictures in as many different ways as they interpret vocal inflections! The little picture of the book might mean “book” (ie: any book) to one person, but could index a specific book to someone else, depending on what books they read, where they encounter books, how many books they’ve read.  Airport icons taken out of context are meaningless, unless someone has seen them in an airport before (in which case, they’re not out of context because that person associates them with ‘airports’). Show them to someone who has never been in an airport, and you’re likely to get a nervous giggle and a shrug.

This seems to go against what the piece I mentioned earlier was trying to say…!

Art for the People” (1999)- I love this one. Look at the banners. Chinese characters, right? Look closer. See it? Once you see it, it’s tough to see the characters again…. Think twice about what ‘the visual’ is saying!

Reading Landscape” (2001)- Yay landscapes! He has several ‘landscape’ pieces, but this one I found most interesting. The characters for ‘tree’ are shaped roughly like trees (trunk, branches, leaves).  Xu Bing uses them to paint a landscape scene on the walls of the gallery. So, the characters meaning ‘tree’ represent the physical form of ‘tree’ in the representation of the landscape. Hee hee.

A different sort of landscape photograph

I know I haven’t posted on The Graphic Imperative yet… but it’s coming. Really. I think I’m going to go back to the exhibit this week for another look.

In the meantime, I heard about this photographer on Weekend America today. He’s taking a really interesting angle on landscape photography, and putting a distinctly social-activist spin on it.

Ken Gonzales-Day wandered around California taking pictures of trees for his series Hang Trees. These trees were (or might have been) used in lynchings in the 19th century. Landscape photographs often neglect considerations of human interaction and influence, reproducing the classic definition of Nature as “a place without humans.” Therefore, the places where humans are is not part of Nature. By focusing on trees used in lynchings, Gonzales-Day is taking an image generally taken to symbolize natural beauty, peace, and strength and reconstructing the landscape as a point of social conflict between human beings, and a point of interaction between human beings and their environment.

He told Weekend America, “…when you think about the landscape in California, you probably think of the very pastoral, beautiful image. And it’s probably taken by a number of Weston or Adams, or a number of photographers that are well known in their fields. They construct this idea of a landscape that is race neutral, in which there are no people, there are no races and there is no conflict. And part of my photographic journey has been to go back and look for these sites. They’re still beautiful photographs. They’re still beautiful trees, but I hope that the viewer will rethink their assumptions about how they look at photographs of landscapes.”

While not exactly “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) posters, or even part of the “Environmental Justice” movement, Gonzales-Day’s photos irrefutably link landscape and human injustice. They provide a space for considering environmental influence on human action (note the use of native trees in the lynchings, with the low twisted branches). His photos also contemplate the erasure of human action upon the environment, by suggesting a reconceptualization of [peaceful, beautiful] landscapes as places of social conflict.

Although Gonzales-Day’s point is to draw attention to the marginalized racial conflicts in the 19th-century West, he is also reconceptualizing human- environment interactions. In considering human effects on the environment, we often neglect the social implications of using Nature, and the environmental implications of social injustice. There are countless ways in which the Human and Natural spheres pervade each other.

Ecotopia

In Traditions I (the first of two ethnology core courses for anthrogeeks), we read an edited volume called Reinventing Anthropology, which had a number of radical-at-the-time (and still arguably radical– in some circles) articles written in the 1970s, largely at/from Berkeley. One that really grabbed me was “The Life and Culture of Eco-Topia” by E.N. Anderson.

In it, Anderson both details a concept of an ‘ecotopian’ society, as well as poses a call-to-action for anthropologists to address pressing environmental issues. He argues that environmental concerns such as pollution and scarcity of resources are in fact facets of social and economic oppression, both favorite topics of anthropologists. In 1972, these were new, radical ideas! It was just two years after the first Earth Day, and in the midst of the Viet Nam conflict and associated civil unrest, student protests, and educational reforms. He was bold, claiming that it was the duty of anthropologists to take up environmental oppression as a facet of social oppression, and not ‘just’ adopting social oppression (which even now continues to be a more common cause).

Three years later, also at Berkeley, a UCal Press editor and UChicago film grad named Ernest Callenbach wrote the novel Ecotopia: The Notes and Reports of William Weston. Despite initial difficulty in getting it published, it eventually became a best-seller.

The premise of the book is the visit of journalist William Weston to the country Ecotopia (in fact the states of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California). Weston is the first American to visit Ecotopia since its Independence from the United States 20 years prior.

Callenbach describes in great detail the layout of Ecotopian cities, the structure of their societies and interpersonal relationships, and their quotidian comings and goings. The book could almost be called ethnographic, in the same way that other fictional works (such as Vargas Llosa’s El hablador and Rojas González’s Lola Casanova) use a familiar primary character (ie: the ethnographer) to explore and explain an unfamiliar group of people. In this case, however, the group of people is also fictional (not so in the two novels cited above) and the ethnographic ‘data’ all just a product of the author’s imagination.

The book is still so entertaining to read, 30+ years later, because Callenbach addresses ideas which could still be called novel and radical. Then again, some of his ideas are in fact just crazy. Really, really crazy. I’ll take issue with them below. I promise.

William Weston, the narrator and ‘ethnographer’ (if we’re going with that framework), happens to be a chauvinistic pig. At least at the beginning of the story. Divorced, he essentially abandoned his two kids and is just looking for some chick to fawn over the big important newsman (and then to sleep with him). He spends his first several days in Ecotopia trying to pick up women on the street, and is increasingly frustrated. But we’ll get back to that.

Ecotopian cities, Weston finds, are designed with pedestrians in mind. The wide streets of San Francisco have been turned into pedestrian malls, with ample bike lanes and free trolleys for trips longer than a couple of blocks. Furthermore, cities are steadily being decentralized into small communities linked by light (and pollution-free) electric rail lines.

Wait a minute, you might say. Electricity is NOT pollution- free. Ah, but in Ecotopia it is. Ecotopians have managed to improve the efficiency of solar and geothermal energy options, as well as eliminate the environmental impact caused by hydroelectric (by suspending a wheel above a river, rather than building a dam). Hence, pollution-free electricity.

Consumerism is dead. At least, people only purchase generic necessities, even going so far as to dye their own clothing. People grow much of their own food, and hunt for deer and other animals right on the outskirts of town. Trees are worshiped (almost) and much ritual surrounds the harvesting of wood.

Artists are able to pursue their craft without fear of starvation, everyone is guaranteed a minimum income level (while some people do make more money in skilled trades such as medicine…)

Most importantly, people are laid-back, un-stressed, playful, and completely comfortable cavorting with each other. He reiterates this quite frequently.  In fact, the reader starts to wonder if this guy is seriously repressed.

And then the reader realizes that he must be seriously repressed. I started counting how many times sex is mentioned, seemingly out-of-context, but then I gave up.  C’mon, the main character’s medical nurse has sex with him as part of the ‘healing process’?! Seriously?!

I suppose the author would argue that it is I, in fact, that is repressed, because I’m not comfortable with how often he talks about a ‘natural human activity’? Am I right?

Sure. That’s the major problem with our society. Okay.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps if we allowed our hormones free reign and did just what they’re telling us to do, we’d be much happier people, our society would function more smoothly, and men and women would be on truly equal footing.

I think the author is overestimating just how ‘oppressed’ women are, and that’s where his wishful thinking comes in.

So, in conclusion, I could have done with a lot more ‘science fiction’ imagining how this society came about, rather than the characters’ sex lives. But if you can read around that, the book is really pretty fascinating.  The author brings up some important philosophical ideas that still aren’t widely appreciated 30 years after the book was published.

The End.

Just for kicks…

Lolinator turns any website into a LOLCats website.