06 June 2012

Things that Only Happen to Other People

The evening we came back to Berlin from Poland, there was a new lock on the door, a no-frills standard-issue lever that no one would have chosen if given a choice. A notice from the police did its best to be warm and friendly (signed, “Ihre Berliner Polizei”—Your Berlin Police), but the fingerprinting dust smeared all over the door suggested otherwise. We walked into the apartment tracking more of the sooty dust down the hallway into the other hallway and into our room. My friend held back because while it was a given that my computer, which I had left sitting on the desk, would be gone, she could only guess at the fate of her viola. (She had taken all of her valuables—camera, computer and iPod—to Poland with her.)

21 March 2012

Plane Language

Air travel is now unpleasant in so many ways that you can hardly list them. In economy class, the romance has been drained out of the experience by a couple of decades of cost-cutting. The horror has a precise starting date, according to The New York Times, and it’s earlier than you might think:
“Industry experts trace the problem back to 1987, when American Airlines removed a single olive from its salads to save a little money.”
I take the comedian Louis C.K.’s point that we complain too much about air travel, which is really a marvel if you think about it (“you’re sitting in a chair in the sky”). The one indignity that I’m becoming less and less tolerant of is the language of the airport and the skies. Lots of communication happens—from the fine print telling us whether our tickets are refundable to the flight attendant’s cheery “would you like a beverage, sir?”—but very little at a human level. The language used by airlines and the Transportation Security Administration is often distorted, plastic, unidiomatic, excessive and generally frustrating.

07 February 2012

Perspective, Lego-men and skulls

In the early fifteenth century, the painter Masaccio did something amazing: He painted frescos that made use of linear and aerial perspective. (Regrettably he died at age 27, like the singer Jim Morrison--now that I am 28, I find myself keeping lists of "people who died younger than my current age who did important things" and that's probably not healthy.) Scientific perspective, which was perfected by painters in the later decades of the fifteenth century, changed the way art could represent the world. As if by magic--though really through a better understanding of optics--things on a two-dimensional surface could appear to be in three dimensions. I am not an art historian so I am not sure how this was received historically, but it was probably akin to when someone in our time sees a 3-D film for the first time. I vividly remember myself as a ten year old at my first IMAX film almost shrieking as a salmon seemed to swim through the head of someone seated a few rows in front of me.

The most amazing perspectival drawing I have come across recently is not a canvas at all but a painting on a road in Florida. It is (or "was" since it must be erased by now) the entry by Leon Keer, a Dutch artist, and his team in the Sarasota Chalk Festival. Inspired by the Qin-dynasty Terracotta Army, the drawing represents Lego-men marching in the pavement. It has to be seen to be believed. But there is a problem that I had never really considered but which must always be a problem with perspectival drawing to a greater or lesser degree: From another angle the Lego-men look strange and elongated. The deeper and richer the perspective, the more restricted the viewing angle for the 3-d effect to work. Even stranger than the lanky Lego soldiers is a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger called The Ambassadors. All looks well with the two elegantly dressed young men and their assortment of allegorical objects, but then one notices the highly distorted skull in the foreground. It looks like a crudely done Photoshop project and yet is actually an experiment in perspective. The skull only looks natural if you view the picture from far to the right. I was never able to get it to work on the computer screen but the next time I am in London I'll pay a visit to the National Gallery to approach the painting from awkward angles. 

10 January 2012

The Scourge of Internet comments

Prof Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log (one of the blogs I read the most) has a fantastic explanation of why he usually disables comments on his posts. Vogon poetry is invoked. Passive voice is explained. And so on. I don't bother closing the comments on this blog because, luckily, not enough people read it to leave soul-sappingly stupid comments.

09 January 2012

History Through a Glass, Darkly

On my grandfather, E. Jarosław Semianów 

[This is a true sketch of my grandfather's life, and a meditation on how hard it is to establish even the most basic facts in history. It's more than five thousand words--far too long for a blog post--but here it is.] 

One summer in the mid-1990s, I was standing in the closet-sized vestibule in my grandfather’s stuffy apartment in a village in southeastern Poland. His cheeks flushed and his breath slightly off, my grandfather grasped both my shoulders tightly and said something to me, something important. After this laying on of hands, the old soldier shuffled away, his rounded back receding into another dim and faded room.
He died in 2005 after a decade-long struggle with depression. I knew him less well than I should have, and the later memories—senility and deafness increasingly robbing him of his ability to perceive the world around him—have fogged happier recollections from childhood.
Like the dead in Hades in the ancient epics, our deceased forebears can be brought back but only as shadows of their living selves. In our time, they are not lured by the promise of sips from a bowl of sacrificial blood but by the rustling of papers in an archive or the whirr of data being retrieved electronically. I am looking at two pages of typescript, which draw the contour lines of a place in history but populate it very sparsely. It is factually detailed — dates, places and even sections of the Soviet-imposed penal code are cited precisely — but beyond the facts there is no self-reflection, no outward emotion. I am not sure whether this ritual will work. I feel guilty because the time to have done this research was years ago when interviews would have allowed me to capture these intangible details. Time flows swiftly in only one direction and swimming against the current is possible for just a little until you grow tired, having nothing to hold on to, and you are dragged downstream again. Most of history is written in the rushing water and the howling wind.