Friday, March 25, 2016

Top Ten Defunct Brooklyn Businesses

Vic's Vegan Charcuterie

Gimlets n' Gramophones 

Just Beets

Lydia's Low-Impact Pet Massage

Kale to the Chief 

Karl's Klassic Kombucha

Lotsa Little Succulents 

Betty's Bridal Tattoo Emporium 

The Anarchist Child Daycare 

Thus Bespoke Zarathustra 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Brooklyn, October

And Whitman’s ample hills await
The Hasid’s steps and Hipster’s gait
In black and white and gray and brown
They build them up, and tear them down

Where brownstone and Cor-Ten collide
And form and function, side by side
Conspire to help the borough stand
Through crystal, oak, and ampersand

The promised harmony evolves
And minor 7th chord resolves
To gentrify each native out
They sing and scream and laugh and shout

That “we are living in the now!”
For Olmsted’s Prospect was a vow
To bolster Breukelen’s ideal mien
From Brighton Beach to high Fort Greene

But cobblestones and asphalt stand
In rigid rivers on demand
To serve up coffee, liquid kale
Fermented tea and ginger ale

A million backlit apples glow
In lofts and bars, row after row
To nourish the creative class
And burn them out as decades pass

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Coming Out of the Woodwork

Next up in the annals of creepy-cool music: Alt-J's "The Gospel of John Hurt." A stand-out track from their latest album, This is All Yours, it alludes to one of the most infamous scenes in film—the "chestburster" scene from Alien.

Kane (John Hurt), dyspeptic in Alien
Did I forget to post a spoiler alert? Sorry. But one or two listens to the song's understated lyrics gives it away: Oh, coming out of the woodwork / chest bursts like John Hurt / Coming out of the wood. 

In an interview with The Guardian, Alt-J's singer and guitarist Joe Newman clearly credits the movie reference, saying "that scene has stayed with me...why not write about those moments you're moved by the most?" From this, you might expect the entire song to be an overt homage to Ridley Scott's definitive sci-fi/horror break out, but Alt-J's not a band to be quite that overt. The title alone is a slippery collage of the biblical Gospel of John, a fictional, extraterrestrial gospel of actor John Hurt, and, perhaps, an unexplained reference to the instructional DVD The "Gospel Guitar" of Mississippi John Hurt. Choose your theme (or themes); it's a unsettling 5 minutes and 16 seconds of free association, no matter how you slice it.

Ripley, packing heat
Lyrics aside, the track adds tension through layers of effects that worm their way into the nightmare. Phrases trail off into digitized hiss and snippets seemingly sampled from Alien. One sounds like the infernal squeak of baby alien moments after its bloody birth; another could be Ripley saying "come ON" through fight-or-flight earnestness (though I can't pinpoint the scene, try as I might). All of these textural details contribute to a composition that's as unnerving as the alien's amoral appetite, or the android Ash's spectacular meltdown. 

Another spoiler, but if you haven't seen it by now, you really should get around to it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Say What? A Consideration of Vulgar Etymology

On any given day, we all use words and expressions without necessarily knowing all of their connotations or their full origin stories. Unless you're a walking dictionary, you've probably used such turns of phrase in discordant contexts, or even made a full-blown faux pas, all unawares. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt--not everyone is as fascinated with etymology as I am. Not everyone consults Webster's a dozen times a day. But sometimes, it perplexes me that people don't get that curious tickle in the back of their brains when they throw around a word or phrase that's parroted rather than comprehensively adopted into their vocabulary.

So I'd like to address a few of the words and expressions that I hear bandied about, and suggest that this stuff would benefit from a more than superficial understanding, and a greater application of mind-to-mouth filtration.

Freud, with his favorite phallic symbol
The first is a word that gives me pause every time I hear it: anal, or anal-retentive. Literally referring to one's orifice of elimination, its cultural dimension stems from Freud's theories of infantile psycho-sexual development. Once you consider its origin, the term's use is prominently odd in most situations short of a proctologist convention. When people say "I'm just so anal," they may think they're saying "I'm detail-oriented, fastidious, and tidy." And to an extent, that would be true. But they're also saying "I have a sort of neurotic constipation." If nothing else, they're drawing attention to a body part seldom cited directly in polite conversation. And yet, it seems that Freud's cultural context has given many license to refer to their sphincters willy nilly in mixed company. So, unless you're sitting in a seminar on Freud, you might want to curtail the anal analogies. Especially when there are so many good alternatives that will make you sound like you aced your verbal SAT in the process: try "I'm fastidious" on for size.

In a similar category, the over-use of seminal and disseminate has got to go. Sure, it sounds impressive ("he's a seminal writer" or, more ironically, "she's a seminal artist"), but consider that the terms pertain to the distribution of semen--the spreading of "seed" for later development. Yes, disseminate literally means to distribute semen, making it a sort of metaphorical ejaculation. Sure, the human body and all of its functions are beautiful and worthy of celebration, but the problem lies in the patriarchal underpinnings of these terms. Applied to great cultural, social, or economic ideas, it carries the connotation that creative or intellectual capital is distributed as a phallocentric, explosive climax. Now, isn't it surprising that this term has persisted in critical as well as casual circles? For that matter, I've always found the Buffalo Seminary to be a particularly ironic name for a girls' school. Seminary may hold the centuries-old denotation of "school," but it's still part of the seminal circle of spermy words.

Some of the victims of Jonestown
This one is particularly egregious--a conversational train wreck in the making: to drink the Kool-Aid. Innocent expression referencing a popular powdered drink mix served at kids' birthday parties, right? Literally, yes. But historically, the metaphor is much darker; it references the Jonestown massacre, when more than 900 people in the "Jonestown" commune died by consuming grape-flavored drink laced with Valium and cyanide, coerced to commit mass suicide by cult leader Jim Jones. The deadly purple punch was actually Flavor Aid, but that detail has long been obscured by the better-known brand Kool-Aid (with its vaguely creepy anthropomorphized pitcher mascot). Originally, to drink the Kool-Aid was to share a communal cup of lethal refreshment, and hundreds of misguided men, women, and children died. Somehow, this shocking slaughter has worked its way into casual conversation, shorthand for irreversible indoctrination or zealous commitment to a cause. But I'd be willing to bet that a high percentage of people who throw the phrase around don't know--or don't care--that they're referencing the single largest loss of civilian American life prior to the events of September 11, 2001. Maybe it's a matter of degree. If you're talking about someone's bewildering or tragic adherence to a cause, the phrase may be apt. If you're talking about someone's slavish devotion to the latest series on Netflix, it's overkill.

I'm not trying to say that colorful vocabulary and lurid metaphor doesn't have its place, and in fact may be essential to the glorious mess that is the English language. I'm just trying to make the case for more judicial deployment of such idiomatic IEDs. The problem lies in the collective callousness that comes with over-use of certain words and phrases. As with any words or phrases on the continuum of profanity, their strategic application is watered-down with wanton use.

But maybe my anal fixation on the seminal effects of language means I've just drunk the Kool-Aid.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Acxiom Addendum

In the course of my research for the post on The Hymn of Acxiom, I found that Acxiom offers the data mined (that's us: the raw material for their customer profiles sold to other companies) a way to see what data the company has on them. The portal goes by the innocuous, educational-sounding name "About the Data," and it's worth a look.

Looking into my own profile, I was impressed by the accuracy of the information there, but underwhelmed by what the company has on me. For that matter, to say that someone "has something" on you implies a dossier of weaponized data that can be used against you. But if you're like me, what you'll find on About the Data is far from an FBI file. Gender, marital status, the make and model of my car, some mundane stats on online credit card purchases...nothing particularly interesting--much less shocking or incriminating.

Frankly, the prevalence of people wringing their hands over what "private" information may be "out there" is perplexing to me. Acxiom doesn't know my favorite Beatle (George), my favorite IPA (currently, Sixpoint Resin), or how I take my coffee (black). Without these and hundreds of thousands of other "data points" that describe me, Acxiom has a very crude sketch of me as a consumer--much less as a person. As it stands, they're nowhere near the sort of co-opting of my identity that so many seem to fear.

Just when I was about to dismiss About the Data as much ado about nothing, there came an intriguing moment. The portal allows you to edit and update your own information, Wikipedia style, but also offers an easy-to-find link to opt out altogether. But when you click on it, you first get this message: 
Before You Opt-Out, Consider This:
Opting out of Acxiom's online and/or offline marketing data will not prevent you from receiving marketing materials. Instead of receiving ads that are relevant to your interests, you will see more generic ads with no information to tailor content. For example, instead of getting a great offer on a hotel package in your favorite vacation spot, you might see an ad for the latest, greatest weight loss solution.
Marketing maverick Elbert Hubbard.
It's a very effective pitch to "help us help you." Arts and Crafts huckster Elbert Hubbard once said, “The man who is afraid of advertising is either a nincompoop or has something to hide.” And that's really all we're talking about here: focused advertising. It's not magic; it's just data. Targeted ads are everywhere now, and there's no avoiding them. So why not help make what you inevitably see more relevant? Fear of such complicity is something akin to wearing a tin foil hat: it's not going to protect you from anything, and makes you look silly in the process. Acxiom isn't "Big Brother," and you're not going to lose your soul by embracing your digital self.

OK, Acxiom, I'll play along. I wouldn't want to be seen as a nincompoop.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Hymn of Acxiom and the Uncanny Valley

The sylvan Ms. Teng
Joining such techno-dystopian songs as "Computer Love" (Kraftwerk), "Deep Blue" (Arcade Fire), and much of Radiohead's OK Computer, Vienna Teng's "The Hymn of Acxiom" addresses the increasingly intimate relationship between people and computers. But, more than some of its counterparts, Teng's song characterizes the creepiness of such cybernetic intercourse through its form as well as its content. 

Stemming from the title (Acxiom is the world's largest processor of consumer data, offering segmentation software with the ominous name PersonicX), the song interfaces with issues of big data, social media, and A.I.'s trajectory toward total emulation of human life. It starts off as reassuring, even seductive [somebody hears you / you know that...inside], but incrementally takes on the vaguely threatening persuasion of an invasive hard sell [keep your life open / you don't have to hide]. Teng first introduces dissonance to the perfect harmonies on "all" in the line "keep them all [every crumb you've dropped]," and the composition crescendos with the promise that "we'll design you a perfect love / or a perfect lust," the most unnerving, digitized vocal precision focused on the word "perfect." In the denouement, the invasion of privacy becomes more overt [now we possess you / reach in your pocket / embrace you for all you're worth], but the song ends with a hint that we're complicit in this digital devil's bargain: is that wrong? Isn't this what you want?
A logo that says "trust us!"
Teng has described the song's beguiling / unsettling sound as "robotic, twitchy harmonies;" she's singing the melody live, accompanied by a layered, digitized chamber chorus of her own voice. The result is aptly described as robotic harmony, pure and devoid of the detuned imperfections that we humans equate with "warmth." This analog / digital duet provides the perfect formal metaphor for the Hymn's theme of a stalking database threatening to replace one's biological, analog life.

Yea, though I walk through the valley...
Essentially, the Hymn is a musical rendition of the "uncanny valley" phenomenon--the term coined by robotics researcher Masahiro Mori to describe the revulsion perceived when an artificial being (robot or android) approaches total simulation of a human being. The "valley" refers to the pronounced trough of revulsion shown when emotional response to increasingly humanoid characteristics is plotted on a graph. The valley explains why R2-D2 is cute and whimsical, why C-3PO is somewhat less so, and why the android Ash from Alien turns out to be a schizophrenic killer. With her hymn, Teng has produced an aural uncanny valley. One might even plot the narrative of the song against Mori's graph to follow its course from lulling balm to enveloping menace.

For anyone who's done any choral singing, Teng's project is additionally insidious: she has effectively replaced Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass with digital simulacra of herself--a computerized choir that offers a pitch-perfect alternative the size of a keyboard. Of course, she's not planning on implementing the choral equivalent of Skynet, but the realization does give one pause.

Thankfully, arrangements of the Hymn for real, human choirs are available, as well as various videos by Teng and others. I think this Matrix-meets-Facebook performance by "Virtual Choir Friends" is particularly poignant. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Putting the Rock Star in "Rock Star Professor"

A totally wired Professor Dolby
As a Gen-Xer turned parent of a Johns Hopkins University student, imagine my delight to hear the first Homewood Professor of the Arts. In announcing the appointment, the Baltimore Sun immediately reminded readers of Dolby's one-hit-wonder status with the headline "'She Blinded Me With Science' singer named Hopkins' 1st Homewood professor of the arts." I'm sure Dolby is used to it, but this persistent association with his signature hit overshadows his impressive, subsequent achievements in film and digital music entrepreneurship. Still, I had to wonder: why Dolby over any number of lesser-known but more traditionally qualified candidates to lead Hopkins' effort to bolster its arts curriculum? It occurred to me that there's a dimension to this that nobody seems to be talking about: Professor Dolby is meant to impress me as a Hopkins parent more than he will ever will impress my son. My first year JHU student, born 14 years after Dolby's signature pop hit, doesn't know Thomas Dolby from Thomas Edison. For that matter, Dolby's not a household name for some of my peers with less omnivorous tastes in music than I.

The hirsute Professor Stipe
Professor of the Arts is a second act for more than one Post-punk pop star. R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe (looking rather professorial in his graying beard and spectacles) recently joined the ranks of NYU faculty in a teaching / artist-in-residence role. Arguably, Stipe brings more rock star to his turn as "rock star professor," and his chops as a multi-media artist are at least as impressive as Dolby's. But the higher education devil's advocate in me has to question the motivations behind such hires. Does the cult of personality and "real world" experience (cited by Dolby as the foundation of his resume) trump a PhD., list of publications, and other tenets of traditional academia? How many with such Ivy League credentials did Dolby--who's formal education ended at age 16--and Stipe--who didn't complete his undergraduate art degree--leap-frog into their positions? Could it be that these appointments are part of a strategic appeal to those paying tuition at these august institutions (typically, mom and dad)? Here I am, expending bytes on the matter, so perhaps the ploy is working. 

Dolby and Stipe's foray into higher education are nothing new in the sense that academia has been trying to add dimension to its relevance through innumerable "real world" connections and collaborations for years. In the age of TED (for which Dolby has been music director for 12 years) and MOOCs, it should come as no surprise that more on-campus professors are less, well, professorial in the diploma-bearing sense. But if this is to be the trajectory of academia, I hope that institutions won't continue to tap the ranks of semi-retired media icons of the 80s exclusively. If they're looking for relevance beyond the stuffy ivory tower, they might consider musicians and artists that will resonate with current students as part of their world, not part of their parents' world. 

Meanwhile, it's rumored that a Professor Vedder will join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 2015. No word to date on whether Bono will accept a post recently offered by Oxford.