RIP Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

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Here’s an early passing that we didn’t foresee, and couldn’t have been ready for. Music legend Prince died at home today in Minnesota. Cause of death has not yet been announced, but it’s been reported that he’d suffered from flu-like symptoms for several weeks.

The doves do indeed cry.

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Useless ingenuity

What a time to be alive. Technology has evolved with us and for us, to the point of ubiquity, to the point of utter interdependence. Some think that the next logical step is the self-aware thinking machine, one that might be lacking sympathy or empathy for its wetware erstwhile masters.

It just might be that looming danger that has prompted a clever subset of makers to take technology in an entirely different direction. Their machines lack not only the potential for domination, but also any quantifiable utility whatsoever.

Behold the Useless Machine. It harnesses electro-mechanics to do…not much of anything. Most of them are engineered to simply switch themselves off. If form and function are as inescapably conjoined as industrial designers have always insisted, then this austere form must have a similarly elementary function. Is it merely to give us a chuckle? If so, then mission accomplished.

Useless machines are getting more and more elegant, and still not doing much more flipping their own off switches. They’re still amazing to watch. Check out how useless technology is advancing apace:

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RIP Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016)

Merle Haggard turned 79 today. He also passed away. He wasn’t just an Okie from Muskogee—he was a legend, and a giant, and there’ll never be another like him

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‘Hamilton’ transcends race

Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s hit Broadway musical stirred up a bit of controversy last week, as a casting call specifying “NON-WHITE” actors drew the ire of a theater union and sparked choruses of ‘reverse-racism.’

The verbiage was clumsy, to be sure (and it has since been amended, with producers now saying the auditions will be open to all), but the outcry was a bit overdone, and probably undeserved. In productions of all sorts it’s not at all unusual for the race or ethnicity of characters to be specified prior to and during casting. If the ‘Hamilton’ casting call was guilty of anything, it was a semantics error—had the producers specified that they were seeking actors of color, it probably wouldn’t have drawn any untoward attention at all. Simple phrasing here provided the illusion of exclusion, and a regrettable opportunity for the sort of people who beat their chest over this reverse-racism nonsense every chance they get.

Which is a shame, because by all accounts ‘Hamilton’ is a transcendent play. I haven’t seen it yet but I very much want to. I will, as soon as I can. Broadway musicals tend not to be my thing, but from everything I’ve seen and heard, ‘Hamilton’ is in a class by itself.

Race, I think, is central to the production, but not at all in a negative way. The visual device of casting black and brown actors in the roles of historical white men and women is as effective and uplifting as the aural device of telling their stories in rhyme, rap, and hip-hop. There are many levels to this fascinating and unexpected juxtaposition—it’s not as simple as blending the past and the present, of telling an 18th-century story in a 21st-century voice.

Americans are encouraged, sometimes strong-armed, into idolizing their founding fathers. There’s much in the USA’s origin story to celebrate, but let’s be honest—it’s much easier to revere Revere and Washington and Jefferson when you share their European ancestry. We’ve somewhat failed the hundred million or so of our fellow citizens who don’t fall into that category, by giving them little common ground in which to connect with the people who created America.

‘Hamilton’ represents an effort by Lin-Manuel Miranda and others to create that common ground themselves. Miranda found in the inspiring yet tragic story of Alexander Hamilton something he recognized, something with which he could sympathize. Hamilton was arguably the most self-made of our founding fathers: an orphan, born out of wedlock, provincial and all but penniless. His accomplishments as a Revolutionary War soldier and as an American statesman were products of talent and of will. He created our financial system, helped write the Constitution, founded both a political party and The New York Post. He surely would have been president (he surely deserved to be), but fate and an awful little man called Aaron Burr intervened.

Challenged to a duel by Burr, Hamilton thought, wrote, and discussed with his friends why he felt he must accept even though on principle he was opposed to such barbarity. He said his intention would be to “throw his fire,” or aim away from Burr, and let Burr do what he would. In the event Hamilton’s shot went high, striking a tree branch above Burr’s head. We’ll never know whether or not the miss was intentional.

Burr, conversely, aimed true. Hamilton was struck in his lower gut; he suffered catastrophic organ damage and a severed spine. He was instantly paralyzed from the waist down and although he retained consciousness for a while, he knew he was dying.

Alexander Hamilton died the following day, July 12th, 1804.

Hamilton and Burr were both European-Americans, but there’s no tenable reason why Hamilton can’t be convincingly portrayed by the Hispanic Lin-Manuel Miranda, or Burr by the African-American Leslie Odom, Jr. Indeed, there’s a powerful contention that this casting is inspired, and perhaps imperative.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ is an embrace of American history by and for a populace that might otherwise disdain our foundational annals. And for all of us it’s a way to rethink and re-celebrate those same stories, in a new and valid and ultimately valuable light.

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Best subway improv ever

Anyone who’s ever ridden the NYC subway system has shared a collective suppressed groan when a man with a money can stands up and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention….”

So for the benefit of us all (and impeccably timed just when we could all use a laugh), those incomparable flash-mob geniuses at Improv Everywhere have turned that awkward scene on its head. This madcap troupe has already improv(ed) the commuter trudge with its now legendary Annual No-Pants Subway Ride. Would you doubt they can do that one better? Well doubt no further. All they needed were a few sets of identical twins and a nightmare scenario from the future. Behold the Time Travel Subway Car:

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Hold your breath and steady your hands: Van Gogh under restoration

It’s necessary, no doubt; and at the same time it’s scary as hell: one of the most iconic post-expressionist paintings in existence is about to undergo restoration.

The painting in question is Vincent Van Gogh‘s Amsterdam Sunflowers (1889), the third in his most famous still-life series. Vincent is believed to have completed five sunflower paintings, including one that was probably destroyed by bombing in Tokyo in 1945. The Amsterdam version is owned by the Dutch Van Gogh museum, which has taken it off display for study by conservators. The eventual plan is to remove a layer of varnish that was most likely added in the 1920s, and to restore the original vibrancy of Van Gogh’s cadmium-yellow pigment, which has dulled through oxidation. The museum plans to return the painting to the public collection later this month while a restoration plan is being formulated. No timeline for the conservation work has been given.

The conservators in question are surely on the right side of history here. Preserving Van Gogh for posterity (not to mention undoing the ham-handedness of whatever knucklehead varnished the damned thing) is beneficence on a cosmic-karmic level. Yet one cannot help but to fret. Do-gooding all too often goes awry, in the same blind but hands-on way that forest rangers used to put out every little fire that flared up in the backwoods. It wasn’t until we had those million-acre conflagrations in the ’90s that we realized sometimes the best course is to just stand back and do nothing.

Not saying that restoration isn’t warranted, or that it’ll end up the artistic equivalent of a forest fire. Just saying that this is a Van Gogh, dammit, and that recent experience in restoration has not been exactly encouraging….

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I culture you: Just some incredibly hip street-art videos

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Loving Vincent – heartbreak and triumph in paint and on film

Any cinematic effort to tell the story of Vincent Van Gogh‘s tortured last years and tragic death would have to be a seamless blend of visual splendor and emotional anguish. Nothing less would serve to portray the frenetic, afflicted life and death of a genius artist who, in his final year, completed 70 paintings in 70 days, then weeks later bled out in the arms of his brother, a bullet in his chest, his last words reported to be: “The sadness will last forever.”

Conventional filmmaking might just not be up to the task.  So all praise, then, to the producers of Loving Vincent, the soon-to-be-released biopic that tells Vincent’s desolate tale through the words of his letters and with interviews of those he left behind, and in the material form—for the first time ever in an animated film—of tens of thousands of individual oil paintings.

Every frame in the film, about 62,000 at last count, is a hand-painted oil on canvas, each done in the style of Van Gogh himself, collectively the work of nearly 100 painters. The project, which included a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to train prospective artists, has been underway for more than four years.

The final release date has not yet been announced, but based on the just-released trailer, it seems (hopefully) imminent. In the meantime we have to enjoy that theatrical trailer, and the 2012 concept trailer. Both are breathtaking. Behold:

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Superimposition – An historical perspective

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One of the most interesting trends that has arisen in this, the age of Photoshop, is the practice juxtaposing history and the present, by superimposing modern-day settings onto archival photographs. The subject matter is fascinating, yet the effect can be downright unsettling.

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The technique (does it even have a name?) seems to be most often used with images from the First and Second World Wars, demonstrating the devastation visited upon towns and villages…and their subsequent resiliency and ultimate flourishing.

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Closer to home, and no less compelling, photographer Marc Hermann and the New York Daily News have compiled a dizzying gallery of mid-20th century New York scenes (primarily crime photos), blended with their modern-day settings. They’re nothing less than mind-altering.

I’ve included a few selections below, along with Hermann’s and the NYDN’s captions. Click here to see the full gallery.

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March 19, 1942 is a day well captured in the Daily News’ archive. Edna Egbert, who lived at 497 Dean St. in Brooklyn, climbed onto her ledge that day. The News captured the distraught woman fighting with the police as she wobbled on the edge. The building is currently painted red, but remains nearly identical to the way it looked 70 years ago.

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A classic case of jealousy. In this stairwell of 992 Southern Blvd. on Sept. 25, 1961, James Linares lay bleeding in the arms of his girlfriend Josephine Dexidor after being shot by her husband. The same banister still scales the length of the hallway.

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The tree that stands in front of 923 44th St. in Brooklyn is the only living witness to gangster Frankie Yale’s untimely demise on July 1, 1928. Yale’s car slammed into the steps of the Brooklyn home that day as he was shot to death from a car driving by.

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SCOTUS slugfest – the people have already spoken

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Give it up, inventors. A better mouse trap was built 150 years ago

In 1861 Colin Pullinger, West Sussex tinkerer, registered his latest invention with the Designs Office (application no. 4373) and called it The Perpetual Mouse Trap. A century and a half later, we’ve learned the man wasn’t prone to exaggeration.

The Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading announced on their blog recently that one of Pullinger’s traps, displayed as part of the museum’s collection, fulfilled its raison d’etre when a mouse checked in, and subsequently did not check out.

The Perpetual Mouse Trap was actually designed as a humane device and lacked a killing mechanism. Purchasers would be expected to release trapped rodents after capture, perhaps not before giving them a good talking to.

In the present case, the museum staff are not habituated to inspecting their artifacts for successful operation, so the filthy little beast starved to death prior to discovery. This might sound tragic, or at least distasteful, but bear in mind the trap was not baited; the mouse climbed in there for no good reason, and was therefore too stupid to go on living.

All else that is known of the clearly superior Perpetual Mouse Trap and its genius inventor is that it, and he, hailed from the idyllic village of Selsey. Frantic efforts are underway locally to determine which door once belonged to Colin Pullinger, so that the world might beat a path to it.

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You can get inside Salvador Dali’s head. But do you want to?

It was almost inevitable that the extant coming-of-age of Virtual Reality would, in short order, take us places we should not go.

Case in point: the St. Petersburg Dali Museum has produced Dreams of Dali, a 3-D, 360° video for the Occulus Rift and Google Cardboard headsets, to transport you inside the surreal landscapes that could only exist within the mind of the consummate surrealist.

Don’t get me wrong. Dali is one of my favorite artists of all time. But his work is disturbing enough in two dimensions. That third dimension of experience might just be the one that tips the balance of sanity.

Check it out here in the form of a sanity-hoarding YouTube imbed, followed by Dali’s bizarre collaboration with Walt Disney (really!), the subject of the present Dali Museum exhibition:

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On this date…

On January 30th, 1703, the 47 Ronin fulfilled their debt of honor, and claimed their place in history.

The 47 had been samurai, loyal retainers of  Asano, the daimyo of Akō. Asano Naganori was a powerful and respected provincial lord, but when we was summoned to the emperor’s court at Edo, he was confounded by the inscrutable rules of courtly etiquette. The emperor commanded his minister, master of ceremonies Kira Yoshinaka, to instruct Asano in the intricacies of behavior and protocol. Lord Asano was unaware, however, that this sort of arrangement traditionally included lavish bribes bestowed upon the teacher by the student, so when those were not forthcoming Kira began insulting and berating the young daimyo, beyond what his sense of personal dignity could bear.

It was a capital offense to draw a weapon at the emperor’s court. Asano knew this, but he drew his tanto dagger anyway, and cut Kira’s face. The wound was superficial, but Asano’s fate was sealed. By sunset he was kneeling in the courtyard, abdomen exposed, blade in hand. He committed flawless seppuku and died with his honor intact.

But back in Akō, his 47 samurai had their own honor to worry about. They were absolutely obligated to avenge their master, but any retaliation for Asano’s death had been forbidden by express order of the emperor. In any case, they were no longer retainers; Asano’s lands and holdings had been seized, his family stripped of their titles, and his samurai made ronin; leaderless, wandering swordsmen. Ronin, almost by definition, were without honor, so there was no expectation for them to seek revenge.

The shogunate was not stupid, however. The palace in general, and Kira’s quarters in particular were reinforced against attack, and Asano’s erstwhile retainers were placed under surveillance. It became clear to them that it would be impossible to discharge their duties under these circumstances. So they swore a secret oath, and they disbursed.

For two years, and in many different places, they behaved very unlike samurai. They drank, gambled, and whored. They did not speak of Asano, or Kira, or revenge. Eventually the court forgot them, and Kira let his guard down.

They reconvened outside Edo on the 30th of January, 1703. Before dawn, and in near-blizzard conditions, they made their way to the gates of Kira Yoshinaka’s home. In two groups, they attacked the house from the front and rear. They avoided unnecessary bloodshed; they disarmed guards and tied them up; doing their best to avoid killing anyone but Kira. They also went to neighbors’ homes and identified themselves, assuring the neighbors that they were not brigands and that the operation underway was a matter of honor, a matter of revenge. The neighbors accepted this (most of them despised Kira); none interfered.

Kira was found hiding in the courtyard. He refused to identify himself. It was the scar Asano had given him two years prior that gave him away.

They offered Kira the opportunity to die as Asano did, ceremonially and by his own hand. He knelt, held the dagger, but merely trembled. The leader of the 47 Ronin, Ōishi Yoshio, took off his head.

For reasons lost to history, one of the Ronin, Terasaka Kichiemon, was pardoned by the Shogun, and would live another 44 years. The remaining 46 were doomed. They were afforded respect, though, for their unwavering commitment to bushido and to their master’s honor. Accordingly, they were given two months to get their affairs in order. On Tuesday, March 20th, 1703 they committed mass seppuku and were interred together. Terasaka joined them in 1747. The site of their graves are venerated to this day.

The story of the 47 Ronin has, quite understandably, become a central point of national pride in Japan, and nearly as famous and revered throughout the world beyond. It has the elements of both a fable and an action movie—in fact, it has been made into a movie, at least seven times (the best is undoubtedly the classic 1941 version, directed by the legendary Kenji Mizoguchi).

The difference between this story and so many others that we choose to build into our modern mythology, is that this really happened. The 47 Ronin lived and died for the sake of honor, and they found their honor sated 313 years ago today.

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Burns’ Night! “We hae meat and we can eat”

Happy Burns’ Night, Scotland!

Haggis, neeps, and tatties for all!

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Human trafficking reveals the cracks in our civilization

There are certain flaws in our world, defects and blemishes, that should rightly be recognized but instead become invisible. They blend in with the background, either through the numbing of repeated exposure or through our willful desire not to see.

Chances are, you stepped over innumerable examples today—cracks in the pavement that marked your path; seemingly unimportant, easy to ignore, but when you stop and think about it you realize that ignored, these problems grow and multiply until they are important. Until they’re impassible.

There’s another flaw, immeasurably more horrific, and somehow just as ignored. Human trafficking is thought to be the second fastest growing criminal enterprise, and one of the most lucrative. Up to 36 million people are living under some sort of slavery, right now. Eighty percent of them are women and children. Sixty thousand of them are in the United States.

It’s a problem so huge, so unspeakable, that it’s hard to wrap your mind around, and hard to identify the solutions needed to stop it, ASAP. The most immediate concern, of course, is rescue for the victims. But like most nostrums, that one is far too simple, and is in less than perfect understanding of the scope of the problem.

So let us, then, come to terms with what’s going on, and let us find ways that all of us can start working to stop this heinousness.

Enter artist Molly Gochman, whose collaborative Red Sand Project seeks to enlist us all in raising awareness of the modern-day slavery that’s going on all around us.

Conceived in part with Art Basel, Gochman’s project is straightforward in execution, profound in its implications. Participants sign up online to receive free toolkits, which include bags of blood-red sand. They are then urged to use the sand to fill in sidewalk cracks in their neighborhoods and communities. That’s it.

But in becoming integral to a multi-sourced art project, those cracks are transformed from the everyday invisibility we spoke of earlier, to jarring scars on our landscape, impossible to ignore. The goal is for these silent messages to become ubiquitous, and to become the basis of a conversation that all of us begin having. As a result, we can hope, the victims of human trafficking likewise shed their invisibility, and stop falling through the cracks. And eventually, they go free.

The easiest, most understandable, most avoidable mistake we all can make is to assume that human trafficking is so evil it must be going on somewhere far away. Don’t kid yourself. It happens in big cities and small ones, and in rural villages and tiny hamlets. It happens everywhere. Chances are uncomfortably huge that it’s going on near you, that you’ve walked right past it, that it’s happening in places you thought you knew well.

Human trafficking is not a problem you can or should ignore. Educate yourself, learn what to look for. If you suspect it, report it. And if you have the time and inclination, spread a little sand.

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