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March 29, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: The role of luck edition

Luck is without a doubt an important ingredient in creative discoveries. A very successful artist, whose work sells well and hangs in the best museums and who can afford a large estate with horses and a swimming pool, once admitted ruefully that there could be at least a thousand artists as good as he is—yet they are unknown and their work is unappreciated. The one difference between him and the rest, he said, was that years back he met at a party a man with whom he had a few drinks. They hit it off and became friends. The man eventually became a successful art dealer who did his best to push his friend’s work. One thing led to another: A rich collector began to buy the artist’s work, critics started paying attention, a large museum added one of his works to its permanent collection. And once the artist became successful, the field discovered his creativity.

—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Should this be heartening or disheartening. Also: Compare it to “Photography and Tyler Cowen’s ‘Average is Over.’

March 29, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Thoughts on the movie “Nymphomaniac”

* Unlike the movie I’m going to put the moneyshot at the beginning and say it’s boring; we left maybe halfway through “Vol. 1″.

Nymphomaniac* That being said the movie is mostly a comedy. Perhaps it was the New York audience but I’d guess that at least a third of the audience was laughing at parts probably not intended to be funny, like the primal scream from a famous actress directed at her cheating husband. She also got the best line in the movie, asking that the children be allowed to see “the whoring bed.”

* The allegedly nymphomaniacal protagonist, Joe, doesn’t seem to have much fun doing what she’s doing, so why bother?

* The movie is consistent with the idea that women are the chief guardians of each other’s sexuality (see further, e.g. Leora Tanenbaum’s book subtitled Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation).

* The lighting is often amateurish, deliberately at first I thought, but less so as the movie went on. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hollywood. Jittery camerawork has a more obvious artistic purpose in that it mirrors Joe’s internal turmoil about her actions.

* Despite point one Nymphomaniac still asks, “Do most people lead dull lives?”

March 26, 2014 / Jake Seliger

The dead teach the living, keep it short, social porn (maybe), high school as dystopia

* Regrets of the dying.

* Keep it short.

* “Social porn: why people are sharing their sex lives online.” (Maybe.)

* A review of the Nicholas Basbanes book On Paper, which is precisely the sort of book I really want to read without having previously realized that want.

* “‘Words on Paper Will Outlast Us’: How Claire Messud Distills Her Life;” it’s true that words on paper will literally outlast us but maybe not by much when contemplated via a cosmic perspective: “Of course, almost none of this will last in the long term,” but paper “will be carbonized, any book will be a black oblong object, the contents will be lost forever.” Also:

writing leaves behind a visceral sense of what it was like to be alive on the planet in a particular time. Writing tells us what it meant for someone to be human.

This is a long-running pet peeve of mine but publishers really ought to be using better paper.

* “Why teens love dystopias;” short answer: high school has dystopic elements, which I will note is not the same as saying it is a dystopia.

* Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime. In other words, virtually anyone can be arrested for something in the contemporary United States.

March 25, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Photography and Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over”

Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over should be read for many reasons, and one of them is a prediction that marketing and similar activities are going to grow in importance over time. At first I thought the claim was bullshit: shouldn’t the Internet make substance win over style? In many ways it does, but I keep seeing evidence that supports Cowen’s point. The latest example: a few years ago I became interested in photography. Thom Hogan wrote an essay called “What’s Your Biggest Problem?“, in which he says something compatible with Average is Over:

I’d say that the biggest problem I find that most photographers have is a really fundamental one: what is it they’re taking a photo of? And why?

Ironically, pros didn’t use to have this problem. If you were working for a client, generally they were directing you towards what you were taking a photograph of and why. Back in the film days just mastering the technique of getting proper exposure and focus and all the rest was generally enough to set you apart. These days of ubiquitous and cheap stock photography and digital cameras with instant feedback on the basics, for a pro to stand out they need something more than the basics: generally a recognizable and unique style.

Indeed, that is one of the two primary problems pros have these days. Problem 1: standing out amongst all the good imagery that exists, much of it near “free”. Problem 2: marketing yourself so that people know your work. Unfortunately, solving #2 means that you have to be highly visible, which makes more people attempt to copy you, which eventually increases problem #1. Pros have to keep moving, keep reinventing themselves, and above all be great marketers and salespeople.

average_is_overMachines (cameras, in this case) are getting so good that even relatively unskilled photographers (like me) can take pretty good shots most of the time, and marketing distinguishes a lot of the pros from uncompensated amateurs who share their work online.

A lot of high-skill / low-income photographers disdain Terry Richardson for “boring” shots, blown-out highlights, and other technical flaws, and they say that they could do what he does (there is also probably more than a little jealousy animating those attacks, since Richardson appears to lead a very active, varied sex life). But Richardson has something important almost no one else does: people know his name and to a lesser extent his work. Not many photographers have strangers who know their name, let alone have strong opinions about their work. Whatever his flaws may be, Richardson has what people commenting on the Internet don’t.

There are probably more very good photos being taken today than ever before, and, as I wrote here, I’m a small but real contributor. Writing is still the main focus of my life but I still manage to get some decent shots; like anything touched by computers and Moore’s Law cameras are getting better all the time. I shoot with an Olympus E-M5 that originally retailed for about $1,200 and now goes for half that used.* The E-M5 is better in many respects than most of the professional cameras that cost many thousands of dollars in 2006, and in a year or two it’ll be cheaper still.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the same time tools like Adobe Lightroom are also making pictures easier to enhance (or “save”) through simple parameter adjustments. Most people who learn about photography learn to shoot in their camera’s raw file format, which gives much greater latitude in processing. It’s possible to get a very professional look by changing a few parameters.

So what’s going to separate the pros? Marketing. Money in what’s called “stock” photography has already basically disappeared, and journalistic photographers have seen their ranks dwindle along with newspaper subscriptions. This guy took professional-caliber shots for his friend’s website. What’s left is finding a way to make people think you’re better than the race-to-the-bottom, even if some people still think some heavily marketed / known photographers are the bottom.


* The people in charge of camera naming and marketing are complete idiots: most cameras are named with a baffling array of impossible-to-remember letters and numbers, and only obsessive nerds like me take the time to figure out what they mean. The only camera with some mainstream name recognition is the Canon Rebel line; while the name is nonsensical—what exactly is one rebelling from?—it is at least memorable.

March 19, 2014 / Jake Seliger

The Innocent — Ian McEwan

The Innocent is deceptively brilliant: for at least the first half of the novel it seems slight, thrillerish without the thrills, about a weakling and pushed-around fool. In the second half it explodes. The character violations that would normally damn the book instead make sense yet aren’t anticipated in advance, at least by me; much of the story is shockingly tense in ways that shouldn’t be. McEwan is very good at delayed resolution and gratification in a way most literary writers aren’t.

There are many essays to be written about The Innocent’s subtleties: about secrets, about sexuality, about the role of the unexpected, about fear, about pride, about loss, about the collision between fantasy and reality, about the instability of personality and its unpredictable development.

McEwan_The_innocentFirework sentences—the ones with elaborate metaphors or epiphanies or rhetoric—are relatively few, but almost all of them hum along and even the mundane sentences like “Maria reached for her skirt and blouse” are often given menace by their context. “Relatively few” does not mean none and some of the obvious ones stand out: “Leonard Marnham [. . . ] had never actually met an American to talk to, but he had studied them in depth at his local Odeon.” An Odeon is a great way to study foreign cultures, of course, a sort of science lab for the soul. Of Maria’s parents, she thinks or explains that “They still resented their daughter for the marriage she had made at twenty against their wishes, and took no satisfaction in the fulfillment of all their worst predictions.” Most of us find our prophecies wrong of failed.

Leonard is the innocent of the title, who discovers emotion at the behest of a woman. He is beset by apparently important work that conflicts with an inner life newly freed from his parents and the constraints of home, and after he meets Maria he thinks that “He knew that if only he had a little more leisure and were a little less tired he could be obsessed, he could be a man in love.” As if he plays a role: he could be “a man in love,” instead of more directly saying that he loves Maria. He needs that mediating, cultural desire to feel his own at this early stage of his development. As the novel proceeds things naturally change.

Without giving anything I’ll also note that the novel uses McEwan’s characteristic end-stage “zoom” effect, in which decades elapse in the final pages. Such a change is disconcerting, disconsoling—yet appropriate. It is brutal but in an acceptable way, or maybe just melancholy.

Here is James Wood on McEwan, though Wood does not share my love of plot. Here is Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker.

March 19, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: Wink Books, the LBR, prostitution prohibition and its effects, the LBR, and more

* Wink Books; “there should be a place that recommends and introduces books that belong on paper. There wasn’t one, so we created it: Wink Books. Wink is a website similar to Cool Tools that recommends and reviews one remarkable paper book each weekday.” I haven’t spent much time on it but the idea is promising.

* An interview with the brilliant Peter Watts, the same author whose assault was detailed in the last links post.

* “Is the LRB the best magazine in the world? The London Review of Books has become the most successful – and controversial – literary publication in Europe. Just what is Mary-Kay Wilmers, its 75-year-old editor, getting so right?” This article convinces me to subscribe; I’ve been a periodic New York Review of Books subscriber but I find too many (predictable) articles about politics and too few about books.

* The Numbers Behind America’s Mass Transit Resurgence.

* Bike parking in NYC.

* “In-Depth Report Details Economics of the Sex Trade;” the funniest thing is the way pimps are filling a niche created by prohibition.

* “The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals: Academics write for the public more than ever before but are hampered by precariousness of their profession,” which is almost too obvious to post but I like Corey Robin on Crooked Timber too much not to.

* Have liberal arts degree, will code.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “gandlaf sex,” which I find as puzzling as I hope you do.

March 14, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Thoughts on the movie “Particle Fever”

* Particle Fever is surprisingly and pleasantly tense, even for me, who knew the “outcome” in advance. There is more at stake in this movie than most thrillers about murders and bombs, etc.

* The axing of the SSC is one of the great political and technological travesties of our time and almost no one appreciates it. Relatedly, financial questions are among the dumbest and most common that can be asked of basic science projects, perhaps because asking intelligent questions requires knowledge.

Particle fever* No one wears suits and Particle Fever could be an ad for Apple, since almost every physicist uses Mac laptops and iMacs peek from desks (Steve Jobs would be proud). In the larger society almost everyone has access to the same machines but what people choose to do with them differs greatly. One could even say there is a story not about income inequality but about intellectual inequality there, and if I were a certain kind of writer I would launch myself from that topic into a screed.

* What matters more than knowing stuff? And who is working on something really important?

* It is not easy to make documentaries that go beyond “this happened, then this happened,” which may be why most people don’t care much for them.

* That humanity can build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is itself amazing and more amazing than most monuments. Same with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). There may be a great documentary at ITER too.

* There are many status hierarchies to be climbed and the most commonly climbed ones may not be the best. Which one are you climbing? If you don’t know that’s not a good sign and someone else has probably determined the answer for you, without your consent.

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