Monday, January 24, 2011

New Doorstop for the Office

I've been dreaming of this for about a year. It has now become a reality.


It has put an end to a constant low-level annoyance, with simplicity and humor.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

NYPL in Winter

For a long time, I was climbing a minimum of 14 flights of stairs each day - and often 18 or more. That ended about six months ago with the Grand Experiment. Now, there are days when I don't climb any stairs at all.

So when I decided to walk downstairs from my apartment on Friday, that was a bit of a shock to the system - 20 flights all in one go. Then I kept climbing all weekend, and finished up with some short and long walks. Let's just say I now have a very strong urge to soak my legs in hot water. Instead, I will go back out into the cold again for my French acting class. Sigh.

But I digress. The short walk on Sunday was a stroll from FAPC to NYPL and back again, to see the "Three Faiths" exhibit at the library and then join in an interfaith discussion among liberal Presbyterians, liberal Reform Jews, and liberal Muslims.

It's been a while since I've been to the main library. I liked the snow-highlighted lions:

For the first time I noticed that the external architecture and lanterns...

... was echoed inside as well:

The exhibit was interesting, and it was nice (initially) to have a private tour. Unfortunately, the tour group quickly snowballed, and it became difficult to see anything. I'll have to go back and see things at my own pace. And also try out the Scriptorium.

Afterward, I walked back to the church for the inter-faith discussion. Of the 7 people at my table, only 1 was Muslim. It would have been very helpful to have a second Muslim at the table, since the other six of us were (I believe) most eager to hear about Islam as the newest and least familiar of the three faiths. Our Muslim table-mate was very nice, and seemed to be very open-minded and encouraging of her son who has spent religious holidays with his two best friends, one Christian and one Jewish.

One person at our table was adamant that all religions are essentially the same, and further asserted that it only matters that you are a good and ethical person. I don't agree with her. To me, it seems clear that there are some pretty significant differences -- and of course, unless God is a human invention, it seems likely that some religions will inevitably be nearer or farther from the truth about God. Maybe she's right that the only thing that ultimately matters to God is whether you are a good and ethical person -- but ironically that appears to be a point of difference among the three religions. It sounds a lot like the concept of being "saved by works" (rather than by God's grace as seen in Protestant creeds) and implicitly assumes that humans are capable of being good people and eschewing sin (even though Jesus re-defined the 10 Commandments in a way that ensures an epic Fail for each and every one of us). But she clearly meant so well, I didn't have the heart to challenge her. It didn't feel like the time or place for that kind of engagement or grappling with each other, even in the name of greater understanding.

Our panel of three religious leaders - a rabbi, a pastor, and an imam - fielded a series of questions. There were prepared questions, which were good, but my favorite questions were from the audience (albeit screened by the moderator).

All three panelists came across really well. They even raised the right questions about the concept of inter-faith dialogue. The key one being, in essence: Aren't we preaching to the choir here - isn't it the folks who would never consider attending, who most need to go?

And our panelists also provided an answer I hadn't thought of: These events may provide moderates with actual knowledge and experience to help curb the extremists. Ammunition for the good fight, if you will.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mid-Winter Respite

I love this work by Béatrice Coron, and am always thrilled when it's on display in my subway car:


There is life in every layer of the landscape, from the rooftops and above to the tunnels below the train. In the excerpt above, you can even see the folks living underground, with their campfire. To me, the stories are richly suggestive. One of my favorite excerpts is this one:


For the first time, I decided to go to the Women's Winter Sabbath with women from my church. There were about 30 of us, a good-sized group, and we were focused on prayer. The retreat was actually in Manhattan, on 95th Street. So it was super-convenient.

The building is almost 100 years old (i.e., pretty old by U.S. standards), simple but clean, with lots of "old world" touches. According to the website:
The House at 7 East 95th Street was built between 1914 and 1916 to serve as the town residence of Edith Shepard Fabbri, a great granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and her husband, Ernesto Fabbri, an associate of J. Pierpont Morgan.
I liked the library. It has a balcony for a second floor of books. If you look closely at the lower right of this picture, there are dark and empty shelves -- that is a "secret" door to the servants' quarters:

Afterward, I walked into Central Park for a short partial circuit of the Reservoir. In close-up, it looks pretty natural and wild, doesn't it?

But if you pan out a little, you see the usual cityscape:


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Joshua Bell in the Subway

More than one pastor has mentioned the Washington Post experiment involving Joshua Bell. The world-famous violinist played in the D.C. metro during rush hour, with his violin case open in front of him. As described in the Washington Post:
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
Usually I've heard the incident discussed as evidence for the proposition that we've built up an immunity to truth and beauty. The Washington Post article is more nuanced than I'd expected -- it is definitely worth a read. The reality is that people going to or from their train at rush hour generally have somewhere to go at a particular time... and do not appreciate the implicit bid for their time, attention, and money of a performance they've not asked for. Of course they will do their best to ignore a busker if they possibly can. The interesting thing to me is that:
[T]he behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
This makes perfect sense. In our society, young children tend not to have much disposable income -- and they do not need to use what money they do have for the necessities of life, which are supplied by the parents or guardian. Children are not expected to pay for things themselves, whereas adults are very much aware of a social expectation that if you stop and enjoy a performance, you have a moral obligation to throwing in some money. Moreover, it is the parents/guardians, not the children, who are responsible for making sure things happen on time, for getting the schedule right. Of course, children would want to stop and listen. And of course, adults would want to scurry on, doing their best to pretend not to notice anything. (That's an important defense mechanism on the subway -- you remain alert for genuine dangers while feigning complete obliviousness to the weirdness all around you.)

I also suspect you might have a different result if you had someone playing pieces (even classical ones) that are very well-known. The opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony come to mind, for example. Mr. Bell had only a few seconds to capture his potential audience's attention. Those few seconds would probably be sufficient for an expert to recognize a master musician, and maybe even a superb instrument. Cf. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (2005). But most of us would hear "violin music" and recognize it as vaguely "classical" - unless it was such a well-known classical work that it is instantly recognizable. We simply don't know enough to appreciate the very best classical music unless the context is right. Once you get us in a concert hall, we can often (to some degree) distinguish between different levels of skill and passion, but the framing definitely helps.

I think if you take away the busking context, you also end up with more people willing to stop and enjoy. For example, where you have a large number of people dancing to a well-known song in a public place, with no request for donations, people can relax and enjoy the surprise. See e.g., Sound of Music | Central Station Antwerp or Don't Stop Believing | Ohio State.

And you might have a very different experience if you did this in a food court, where people are already sitting down and expecting to stay a while -- rather than when they are on their way to work. Consider the flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus, for instance. Of course, this is also an example of a non-busking performance of an instantly recognizable piece -- but the fact that people are already sitting down would give them more opportunity to assess the quality of the music they are hearing even if it were unfamiliar.

There's another thing to think about here. We're used to hearing background music in stores and restaurants, so we're used to tuning it out. It may influence our mood and perception of the place and its merchandise (surely that's what the retailers or restauranteurs hope and expect), but we learn not to pay close attention to it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Museum of the Moving Image

It has re-opened at last! This weekend was the grand re-opening -- I'm not sure they were expecting such crowds, but being featured in Time Out New York probably helped.

My old favorites were there -- e.g., the flipbook maker and the dialogue dubbing studio -- but I also really liked this work, Augmented Sculpture (by Pablo Valbuena, 2007):










I took some videos (some of those photos are video stills), but I think you really have to see it in person to get the full sense of the piece. It's magical.



Saturday, January 08, 2011

San Antonio

There was a light snowfall on the way to the airport, which transformed the grim landscape as seen from the train:

Even a parking garage gained a little bit of magic:

It took basically the whole day to travel to San Antonio. Here's the view from the hotel:

Breakfast with a topiary horse:

Strolling along the River Walk:

It was unfortunately the annual dredging of the river festival, so parts of our walk were a bit noisier than anticipated. But still, some interesting sights. According to my cousin, the dredgers find some nice stuff each year (e.g., engagement rings, etc.). We didn't see anything like that though.

The "Torch of Friendship" sculpture was cool from many angles:

According to Wikipedia, La Antorcha de la Amistad is by a Mexican sculptor known as Sebasti√°n (born Enrique Carbajal on November 16, 1947).

In the evening, we saw birds gathering thickly on wires and trees:


The second cousins bonded over Uno and iPad chess:

The Texans really made us feel welcome; it was great to see everyone.