Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Morning A to Z

Artforum (358 pages this month)
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Dangerous Trends
Einstein Disguised As Robin Hood
Four Letter Words -- Fork, for example
Howling at the Moon
Indian Summer
Just-In-Time Manufacturing
Open Source Coding
Penelope Cruz
Quickdraw McGraw
Utopian Dreams
What is your life all about?
Why are you doing what you are doing?
What if...
You can make a difference. Do it.

*  *  *
What does your Saturday morning off-the-top-of-your-head A to Z look like?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again

My first encounter with Mike made an impression on me. I was living in Puerto Rico at the time working in a Christian book store in a suburb of San Juan. A former instructor of the Wesleyan college there invited me to do prison ministry with him. He said 90% of the prisoners did not speak English so if I could lead a Bible study for those who were interested he could spend more time one day a week with the Spanish speakers there.

As the saying goes, every picture tells a story, and in Bayamon Prison every inmate has a story as well. One of the inmates I met was a fellow named Art. I met Art on my first visit, a really nice American fellow with hair and pasty white skin who ended up behind bars over a misunderstanding. In order to keep the prison population from swelling too excessively (unemployment in 1979 was 50%) the prison made arrangements to put as many prisoners into halfway houses for six months of supervised early release. One of these was the Salvation Army facility within walking distance of the bookstore.

All this to say that when that year of prison visitation began Art was in prison and a guy known as Captain Eddie was head of this nearby Salvation Army halfway house. Ironically, when the year ended the former Captain Eddie was in prison and Art was head of the Salvation Army post there. That is a much longer story that is germane to this blog post only in that it was while visiting Art at the Salvation Army house that I met Mike.

The S.A. house had a room downstairs with billiard tables in it. On those occasions when I went to visit Art, and later a few other guys who who were placed here in limited release, I would be asked to wait downstairs while the person in charge went to retrieve that person. Evidently the men were housed in some large upstairs rooms bunkhouse style. On this one occasion, while waiting for Art a man came to the billiard room and stood in the doorway. He had dark, shoulder-length hair, dark sunglasses and a cropped beard. For a long couple minutes he didn't speak and without introduction or preface started into an oratory, something akin to an actor on a stage, one of Poe's most famous poems.

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary," he began. "Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— while I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping..." He completed the first stanza with eloquence. But he didn't stop there. He continued with the second stanza and the third and on and on until midway through the 18th and final stanza he paused to say, "I bet you didn't think I could do that, did you?"

As I indicated up front, this first encounter with Mike made an impression, as it would anyone. From there we got into a variety of discussions about a host of topics that included philosophical and cultural observations. Bizarre as it was, it proved the beginning of a friendship of sorts. During one of these early visits Mike shared his experience of realizing, while look at the bricks on Grand Street that he was standing where Dylan must have stood when he wrote those lines from Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed...

And Mike said, "That was the second time I had that experience." He then described the images from Mr. Tambourine Man, out on the windy beach, dancing beneath the diamond sky, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus signs... It gave him a chill to realize he was inside another Dylan scene, this time in San Francisco.*

All of this came to mind in an instant the moment I saw that next week Dylan's handwritten lyrics to this song would go on display at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum here in Duluth for the month of May. This and other treasures from the Bill Pagel collection are for the first time going to be shared with the wider public.

Here's a current version of the placard that will accompany the lyrics.

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
Handwritten Lyrics 

Twenty takes of this song are known to have been recorded at Columbia studios. The date was February 17th, 1966, and the recording was done in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the twentieth take that was chosen for the album Blonde on Blonde. This song has been performed often live during Dylan’s career. It ranks 16th on his list of most played songs, with 744 live performances being documented.

"Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" was used in the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and is also mentioned in the book by Hunter S. Thompson. During his reclusive “Dakota Years” even John Lennon wrote a spoof titled “Stuck Inside of Lexicon with the Roget’s Thesaurus Blues Again”.

An example of the lyrics:

“Now the rainman gave me two cures
Then he said, “Jump right in”
The one was Texas medicine
The other was just railroad gin
An’ like a fool I mixed them
An’ it strangled up my mind
An’ now people just get uglier
An’ I have no sense of time
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again”
Bob Dylan, 1966

* * * *
From 1966 to 2010 Dylan performed this song 748 times in concert. Here's the song:

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Let it happen.

* For what it's worth, according to the book The Story Behind Every Song Dylan wrote Mr. Tambourine Man while on the East coast, on the Jersey Shore, not SF.  Mike may have gotten it wrong... but when Dylan sang about the hills of Duluth in Planet Waves, well, this city has quite a number of wonderful views from its hillsides...

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Countdown to Homegrown: The Northland's Very Own Music Festival (First Signs of Spring)

Every part of the world has its own "first sign of spring." For many it's the sound of songbirds in the morning. Ah, they're back! For others it's the spring peepers at sunset. Another sign of spring might be when... you see your first mosquito. (Here's a picture of the first one I saw, now temporarily affixed to the inside of my windshield.) It won't be long we'll see buds on the trees. And this Sunday, the Northland's promised spring is verified with the onset of the Homegrown Music Festival.

By now you've surely seen the 100 page Festival Guides that are in all the usual places. It's likely the best way to see everything that's happening next week from May 1 to 8 here in the Twin Ports, the local music scene's annual celebration of music and the arts. You can, of course, visit and bookmark their website.

A Little History
The Homegrown Music Festival began as a simple birthday party with a handful of bands and a bunch of beer. Now it’s a complete bureaucracy, run by a volunteer steering committee and a fiscal agent.* This year 200 musical acts are scheduled to perform along with a few filmmakers, poets and other artists. And yes, evidently there will also be bunch of beer again this year. Most of the music is good enough that the beer isn't really necessary to enjoy it, though exceptions can probably be cited.

One of the Non-Music Events**
The first visual  leading up to Homegrown is the Homegrown Photography Show, showcasing previous Homegrowns with pictures culled from the community at large and curated by local film photographer Kip Praslowicz. The opening reception is Monday, May 2 at 5 PM at the Red Herring Lounge--and you won't want to miss it, because you can pick up one of the Duluth Art Institute's FREE disposable cameras and then spend the week capturing YOUR Homegrown journey via film!

Turn in your camera by 5 PM, Sunday, May 8, to either the DAI Depot site or the Red Herring Lounge. The film will then be developed "instantly" and put on display, allowing everyone to see what really happened during Homegrown 2016. Photo Stupor will open on Tuesday, May 10 at 5 PM at the Red Herring Lounge, and will be on view for one week.

Exhibition Openings
Location: Red Herring Lounge
Homegrown Photo Show: Monday, May 2 at 5 PM
Photo Stupor: Tuesday, May 10 at 5 PM

Ingredients and Missing Ingredients
I think half the fun of Homegrown is just reading the names of the groups that will be performing. I will personally be missing all the shows after midnight, when they let it all hang out. Try some of these names out for size: Mind Control, Hard Feelings, Ball Slashers, Brain Bugs, Lady Slipper, Mama’s Stolen Horses, Group Too, The Trash Cats, Crazy Neighbors, Silverback Colony. (Now how cool is that?)

I looked in vain to find Revolution Jones and the Fractals. But here are some others who I did see listed: Aly Aleigha, Paper Parlor, The Potluck Communists (Red is a favorite color in the Northland), Songs of Shipwreck (a group of historians), Man on the Moon, Portrait of a Drowned Man, and The Surfactants (a team of chemists?).

There are a lot of familiar like Big Wave Dave and the Ripples, Teague Alexy, the Fish Heads and Murder of Crows.... and on and on, and on and on.  There even a classical music event at Sacred Heart.

Are you sure Revolution Jones is not playing somewhere? That's O.K. There are more than enough groups here who will move your feet or take you to another space in 4/4 time.

The Homegrown Trolley
Anyone who has flown out of Duluth knows that the first stop (usually) is Minneapolis. And because Minneapolis is a hub and DLH is just an outer spoke on the wheel we usually have smaller planes with lower levels on the pecking order of gates at the Minneapolis Airport. Fortunately, they have a train that eagerly assists in conveying us to the heart of the airport where it's easier to reach our appropriate gate before the next flight leaves us behind.

In the same way the Homegrown Festival conscientiously supplies its fans with a means for quickly reaching the next destination from both ends of the Superior cruise line. You may wish to avoid the trolley and get a little exercise as you warm up to Grandma's Marathon. Or you might like to just choose the easy way and meet a few new randomly selected lovers of music. Sometimes serendipity can really be magical. And there are some who say that Homegrown is always a magical time. I mean, it's springtime. Right?

* * * *
Meantime, the beat goes on.

Content Credits
*These two sentences were borrowed without permission from the Homegrown website.
* * This information was provided by a Duluth Art Institute media release. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Art for Earth Day Open Studio at UMD

Advice to all you art students, 
and all you folk who take a moment now and then to read this blog:
“Be who you are and say what you feel, 
because those who mind don’t matter 
and those who matter don’t mind.” -Dr. Seuss

Meantime life goes on all around you. Enbrace it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Local Art Seen: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth

Thursday April 21 the Red Herring Lounge hosted the sixth and final installment of their Design Duluth series. The three guest speakers last week included Sean Elmquist of Chaperone Records, Candace Lacosse of Hemlocks Leatherworks and Heidi Bakk-Hansen from the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee. Interestingly, probably by no coincidence, the Red Herring is right there in the vicinity of this memorial.

The speakers spoke from the heart, telling their stories, how they got here from there, and making real connections with all our life journeys. The topic was the pros and cons of Minnesota Nice:
the politeness, the aversion to confrontation, and a tendency towards the stoic. After the presentations DAI Director once again led us in an exercise that involved interaction with small groups so we could get to know one another, and think a little more deeply on the theme.

Afterwards I asked Heidi Bakk-Hansen fo share here more about this project that stands as a powerful statement and a true work of public art.

EN: Maybe we should start with your writing. What do you do for a living? And tell me about your life path from youth to present in a brief overview...

Heidi Bakk-Hansen: I am primarily a freelance researcher and writer, focused most on local history. I write for Zenith City Online and do other projects; right now I’m helping do some research for the upcoming servant tour at Glensheen. I also do some substitute teaching in the local schools.

I moved to Duluth in 1995 from Chicago, looking for a change. I had quit my career job as a teacher and had spent six months driving a cab in that city as a sort of adventure, but could no longer afford my apartment. So I met someone who lived in Duluth, visited, and moved in the midst of the terrible heat wave that summer. I got a job working at Carlson Book and Record, which was located in the now-empty storefront across from the NorShor Theatre. At the time, it was a big rambling crazy used bookstore, and I loved books, so it worked out for awhile, until the owner got closed down by the IRS over long-standing debts after the millennium.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, moving to the city itself as an adult as soon as I could swing it after graduating from college with an English teaching degree. I spent the first half of the 1990s well-immersed in the progressive activist culture of Chicago, learning as much as I could about all kinds of things, especially developing my understanding of racism and feminism.

In 2000, when we started working on the Memorial in earnest, I did a lot of research on other memorial committees around the country. It seemed like our country was just beginning to hit a sort of understanding about the time period between 1890-1925 as the “nadir of race relations” (that’s a James Loewen phrase) having serious impact on us as a culture. Without Sanctuary was published (a book of lynching photography, which also toured the country as an exhibit) and the centerpiece of their collection was the Duluth lynching photo. Also, Michael Fedo’s book finally was made widely available for the first time.

I found that there were nascent efforts by Dr. James Cameron in Milwaukee to bring attention to the long-term consequences of lynching, and I think he was involved in the effort to have a national memorial to lynching victims in Washington D.C. He has since died, and his effort for a memorial did not come to be. Around the South, you can find various efforts to deal with lynching history. One example would be in Waco, where you find a lot of conflict in the community over the idea. Another would be in Moore’s Ford, Georgia where they actually were confronting living memory—actual perpetrators still alive. There, they actually do a re-enactment each year in an effort to help people understand what happened. We met with other communities in Mississippi where we were able to talk about Duluth and meet with other community leaders attempting to confront this history.

EN: How did the memorial project come about?

HBH: The Memorial project here came out of a conversation between me and Henry Banks in 2000 after I wrote my Ripsaw article on the lynching, in which I laid out what happened and for the first time since 1920 named the accusers in print. Together we announced a day-long vigil at the corner of the Shrine building and the idea for a memorial of some sort came out of that vigil. We started meeting as a committee soon after that. Lots of people worked very hard to make it happen, and the memorial was dedicated in October 2003.

The artists were chosen by the community at large, when in 2001-2 they were welcomed to come view the models proposed by several finalists. The model and artists that were chosen were Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter. She as artist designed the space, and he chose the words/quotes that would go on it.

EN: You mentioned that some discussion was had about fencing it in? Why was this being suggested?

HBH: In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion in the community about appropriate use of the memorial space. One issue some people had (including the police) was that neighborhood folks liked to sit there on a wall (as one of the only pleasant public places available on First Street). A few of them were prone to public drinking and boisterous behavior. Later, some people claim to have observed prostitution and drug dealing on the site. I don’t dispute that these things happened, but my stance has always been that illegal behavior can be dealt with by using current law. (I can only speak for myself here, but you can assume that the board has discussed these issues at length and reached consensus on them.)

The police over the years have sometimes expressed an interest in preventing any loitering on the site by eliminating the ability to sit there. A fence was proposed by some members of the public, and I believe the police floated this idea as well. They believed that this idea could create “open hours” and “closed hours” to prevent uncouth or illegal behavior there late at night.

Another issue has been the use by at least one political group that in recent years have used the site as a place for political meetings and open picnics, complete with a fire circle. I have historically had great sympathy for the original ideas of the political group that has occupied the site, but I don’t feel that “occupy memorial” is a positive way of expressing those ideas, especially when community men of color have asked them to treat the site as a memorial rather than as a park.

Our stance as a board is that the space is a sacred community space, memorializing the three men who were lynched. It should be open to all individuals at any time. Illegal behavior can be dealt with by existing laws, including those regarding un-permitted fires. (City ordinance dictates that public fires must be in designated picnic areas or permits must be acquired. The memorial is a “plaza” and is city property, but it is not a park.)

We know that there is a persistent problem on First Street involving available public space for gatherings of all types for the people who live there. We have urged the city (and we will continue to do so) to rectify this problem. People should have to right to sit outside in their neighborhood with dignity and without being harassed by the police.

There is a balance that must be maintained at the memorial so that it is available for its sacred purpose. No group should be able to monopolize the site for any reason or political agenda in a way that prevents non-members of their group from visiting it or feeling welcome there.

EN: What kind of feedback have you had from the community since this was inaugurated?

HBH: I have given countless tours and talks over the years since the memorial’s unveiling, and it is easily the most talked about and most visited public art in the city. The vast majority understand it as valuable and worthwhile, a living document to the work we have yet to complete in this community to make it live up to the words and ideals written upon it.

I think that those of us who live here, however, forget just how upsetting being there can be—more than once I have talked about the story of the lynching to young people who dissolve into tears at hearing it told. For young black men and women especially, it can be very emotional and difficult, because it is not a “distant past” sort of event. It is present in our lives all around us.

On very rare occasion, I have heard from people who ignorantly assume it is a “politically correct” memorial to rapists. I have spoken to this assumption many times, laying out the accusation that was made, the obviously unfair (and today, illegal) way the accused were chosen from a group of 150 men in the night, how the riot transpired, and the most bare fact that even if the men were guilty (and they were not), justice was not served.

The idea that the memorial is “too negative” or “creates more racism” by forcing a conversation or confrontation is, in my opinion, a stance taken by people who have not found a way to discuss their feelings about race without shame or guilt or accusation. It’s uncomfortable, but I can promise them that the discomfort eases with practice and effort. This is a matter of self-education, but also one that we all as a community (especially if you are white) must assist each other in working through. Otherwise, we’ll never move forward.

* * * *
Thank you, Heidi, for your work on this project and for choosing the City of Duluth to call home.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Local Art Seen: Art for Earth Day Open Studio at UMD

“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” 
 ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Saturday the Twin Ports celebrated Art for Earth Day. One of the annual venues is the UMD art department which opens its studios for the occasion. Here's a portion of what I saw... with more to come soon.

This last image here was a painting that I found especially interesting. The juxtaposition of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends with Eugene Peterson's The Message and a book on Automotive Mechanics stopped me in my tracks for a few minutes. I wanted to know who did this and pondered what the underpinnings of this selection for a still life. Finally, I wondered what three books I would select for a painting of this sort.

And that's my question for you. What three books would you paint if you had the skills? 

Meantime... life goes on. Cool.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Handwritten Lyrics to Dylan's Desolation Row: Sneak Preview of the May William Pagel Exhibit at Karpeles

The weeks have been barreling along like a freight train this year. Hard to believe we're just a week away from the month of May and the kickoff of the Duluth Homegrown Festival, an eight-day celebration of local music and related enthusiasms. The end of the month is eight-day Duluth Dylan Fest, a perfect set of bookends to one of the Northland's nicest time of the year.

Dylan Fest has added quite a few new events this year, one of the most significant being the public display of a number of items from William Pagel's private Dylan memorabilia collection. In addition to collecting backstage passes, letters, Dylan books and recordings, he also purchased the duplex in Duluth's Central Hillside where young Robert Zimmerman lived the first six year of his life, walking distance from Nettleton Elementary School. For the first time a small portion of the Pagel collection will be shared with the public at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. This exhibit will be on display throughout the month of May and not just during Dylan Fest.

There's at least one item to be displayed that I am not at liberty to talk about, an item so rare I'm not sure anyone even knows of its existence. There's another that will settle an old score regarding a matter of Dylan history.

One of the many documents you'll see if you visit are the original handwritten lyrics from Desolation Row. Each displayed item will have a printed legend describing its significance. Here's an example of the kinds of stories that will accompany the documents.

Desolation Row handwritten lyrics 
This memorial now stands at the site of the hanging. 
Recorded on August 4th, 1965, this song closed out Dylan’s sixth studio album, Highway 61 Revisited. It was the longest song on the album at eleven minutes twenty-one seconds. The song is predominantly acoustic, although an earlier take with electric instrumentation was recorded on July 29th, 1965. Some have suggested that the first verse could have been influenced by a tragic event in the city of Duluth’s history, in which three African Americans were lynched in downtown Duluth. Postcards were sold of the lynching, and the three men worked for a carnival passing through Duluth. The first verse states:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

There are nine more verses in the song. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the song at #187 in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

* * * *
If you're coming in from out of town, the monument pictured here can be found at the corner of Second Avenue East and First Street, on the corner where this tragic event occurred. It is the only memorial to a lynching in the United States. May we never forget. (For further reading see Michael Fedo's The Lynchings in Duluth.

* * * *
For highlights of this year's Duluth Dylan Fest visit this page or follow along on the Fest's Facebook page.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Enjoy the music. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

River Memories -- Cleveland's Cuyahoga River Fire Department

The first years of my life I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland called Maple Heights. It was a new development with new houses and new families, and lots of kids to play baseball and football with. The elementary school was a half block away, and beyond there was a forest, and great places to go sledding.

Nearly all my memories from that time are good ones. The 1950s was something of an age of innocence for kids like me. Only later did I come to learn that not everyone grew up with such a carefree existence.

There are, however, many experiences that we have that lay dormant and unremembered, but they are in there, only awaiting a trigger to unwrap them. One of these for me was our class trip to one of the fire station on the Cuyahoga River. That's right. The river had a fire department with four fire stations because this river was so polluted it would catch on fire.

One memory from that time was a political cartoon in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It showed a man and his son fishing from a little boat that was being eaten by chemicals as they sank. An editorial that day talked about how there were no fish left in Lake Erie because of the pollution and that the great lake's beaches were closed because the water was no longer safe for swimming. Something needed to be done.

Strange how far along the river's condition had gone before it was recognized that something needed to be done.

Here in Duluth the One River, Many Stories project has been in full swing with its focus on the St. Louis River upon whose shores reside the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior. As a result of attending a few of their meetings my memory of the Cuyahoga and that class trip to the river's fire station came up to the surface. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade at the time. And the stat I remember most vividly was that the river had caught fire four times that year.

Reflecting on that experience I decided to do a Google search to see how accurate all this was. Turns out that the quality of life for that river was far more shocking than I'd realized, and this fire business went on for a far longer time frame than I'd imagined. According to this story in Time the Cuyahoga's woes became a catalyst to draw attention to all our nation's waterways. In 1969.

My class trip was in 1962 or '63. And the river had been catching fire since the 1930s, if not earlier. That stat from this Tony Long article was my biggest surprise. The river had been catching fire all my life. Fortunately, those fire stations are now closed and Lake Erie is now living. The lesson there is that things really can change when people put their minds to it.

Today it's the 46th anniversary of Earth Day. Here in the Twin Ports they celebrate with an annual Art for Earth Day Gallery Hop. As we think about the future, let's each do our part. Don't give up the fight.

Photo Credit: Photo from story shows a fireboat tug putting out a fire on the Cuyahoga in 1952. Used without permission and will be replaced if requested. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Trump Humor

I realize that even though late night talk show comics are having a field day with this year's presidential race, there are some folk who see nothing funny about the current political reality show. The New Yorker, naturally, wanted to prove the contrary position and did so by having every single cartoon in its April 25 issue be about Donald Trump.  Inasmuch as it came out the weekend before the New York primary, it did not have a great impact on the outcome in the Empire State.

Last night before heading to slumberland I got a little late night reading in, and it was this April 25 edition of The New Yorker. Now I realize that reading the cartoons first is probably akin to young men looking at the pictures of women in Playboy first, but I'm willing to confess that I did that last night. (I don't usually do that, because what I usually do is look at the cartoons as soon as my magazine comes in the mail.) Some of the cartoons were pretty hilarious.

I knew right away that something was up wen I hit the second cartoon and it was about Trump like the first had been. The third confirmed my suspicions. By the end I felt like I'd just finished a nice dessert after a long day.

Here are a few examples, described.

1) It shows a scene at the beach in which a little boy has made an absolutely gigantic sand castle that spells out his name: Trump. The letters are taller than he and it's about 18 feet wide. The caption reads, The Formative Years At Rockaway Beach.

2) The second is a table of bridge players looking at their cards. The caption reads, "One no-trump. Oh, please, God, no Trump."

3) Two women sitting in a diner holding wine glasses and chatting. The one says to the other, "If Trump becomes president, I don't care how high he builds that wall -- I'm going over it."

So against this backdrop, when I woke in the middle of the night I found that all those cartoons only served to feed my subconscious. Upon waking the first thing in my head was a Trump cartoon. It went like this.

The image is of an unemployment line, with a large sign at the top that reads, Unemployment. But the line is made up of famous monsters from Hollywood. The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein etc. Frankenstein says, "Before Trump came along I was the scariest thing going."

After that one made me smile I thought of another one that would be a spin-off for a conservative magazine. At the end of the line we see Hillary.

O.K. you can replace Hillary and have the same effect by putting Trump in that line after Hillary gets elected.

* * *

The next cartoon features two people sitting on a park bench with the N.Y. skyline in the background. They are dressed in stylish clothes, clearly New Yorkers, and happen to both be reading this same edition of The New Yorker. Instead of a caption, they have those word clouds that contain the words they are saying. The first one says, "Wow, Trump's amazing. He not only controls the media, he controls the cartoonists, too. Next thing you know --"

The second one cuts him off: "Don't say it."

* * *

Anyways... hope something here made you smile. If you are a cartoonist and use one of my cartoon ideas, please send it my way to post here, and maybe I will send you a copy of my book A Remarkable Tale from the Land of Podd. Thanks!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Local Arts Seen: Henry Roberts' Venice Carnival at the Zeitgeist

Ah, Venice! There are so many distinctive cities in the world, but none like Venice. It's a city of islands and canals, and history. Indiana Jones and James Bond have both been there (Bond several times, I believe) and many a film has been shot there. But the images we most associate with Venice are these... the canals with their gondolas, and those amazing costumes from the Venice Carnival.

Monday evening was the opening reception for a photography exhibition at the Zeitgeist Cafe. Henry Roberts shared a selection of images from his own trip to Venice, and I make the strongest recommendation that you take a lunch there (the food is fab) to see the images he shot, and printed large. (EdNote: Zeitgeist has a wonderful brunch menu on weekends. Check it out.)

This Venice Carnival show was also a learning experience for me. I have seen the masks from Venice Carnival all my life. But I didn't know much about them other than they produced quite striking images. I even began collecting pictures of masks on one of my Pinterest boards. Having had a long time interest in masks I've even written about it here (and here.) When I have more time I may try to share a little information about the various names and styles of masks worn in the Carnival.

The Venice Carnival has a long history, stretching back to 1162 when people began to dance in San Marco Square. It is similar to Mardi Gras in that it precedes Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar. In 1979 the Italian government re-established the traditional Carnival history with the aim of developing the city's tourist trade. Success! Over 3 million visitors a year visit the Venice Carnival.

After being introduced to the Mr. Roberts we talked briefly about how he ended up being there last year. What follows are some related questions and insights he shared.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in photography?
Henry Roberts: Many years ago I wrote a Sunday nature column for the Duluth News Tribune which often were illustrated with my photos.

EN: What is it that so captivates you about Venice?
HR: Venice, Italy: I saw a magazine article with pictures of the costumes and wanted to do it myself. The brilliant colors attracted my attention.

The Venice Carnival celebration is more than a month long ending on Lent. I went on a photo safari with eight other people and spent a week photographing.

The participants make or buy at $1,000 or more their own costumes which they are proud to display. At daybeak they come out along the Grand Canal to pose for amateur and professional photographers. They will pose as requested. A half-dozen photographers will gather and take turns directing the participants. Along the Canal and before buildings there will be 20 or 30 groups being photographed and handing out their business cards. I surmise that people feel anonymous in masks and are quite willing to be photographed and display their beautiful costumes.

EN: How many trips have you made there?

HR: I have only been to Venice once, this 10 day photo trip. I wanted to capture the brilliant costumes and masks.

I have been photographing since I was 12 years old starting with my mother’s camera. Of course I began with film and always have preferred color to black and white. For a number of years I have recorded digitally with Canon cameras that shoot an image the same size as the original 35mm film cameras.

These pictures were slightly enhanced in Photoshop computer software. In recent years I have worked more with floral subjects which I like to abstract and manipulate digitally in my computer. Then I make prints and display them in our living room where I can walk by them, see what I like and dislike, then improve my next images. I am most interested in making artistic images than producing an exact replica of the subject.

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Henry Roberts has a website that he states is outdated, but a brief visit to will introduce you to sites and scenes from many more of Mr. Roberts' travels, from Maui to Mongolia to Chile, Ecuador and more. The stunning images at the Zeitgeist Cafe this month are from that magical trip to Venice.

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More arts happenings
Tonight is the final installment of the Duluth Art Institutes Design DLH series. The topic is Minnesota Nice: Good, Bad, Nice? The program begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Red Herring Lounge, 208 E. 1st Street. in Duluth. Space is limited so RSVP with the DAI.

This sixth and final session of the series will feature Sean Elmquist, Chaperone Records; Candace Lacosse, Hemlocks Leatherworks; Chris Benson, Frost River; and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee. It should be very interesting.

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Today is also the Tent & Trunk Show at Carlton Bike Rental in Carlton. 3 - 8 p.m. Details here.

Meantime... art goes all around you. Engage it.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Player Piano, Singularity and the Future of Humanity

When I was in college a friend introduced me to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. I remember that first book I read, Cat's Cradle,  blue paperback with white lettering. It was Vonnegut's fourth book and I found it simultaneously a breezy read and compelling. I soon sought out all the other books he'd written up to that time, one of which was his first novel Player Piano.

The reason I thought of Vonnegut this week and am writing about Player Piano is because of recent readings on artificial intelligence and robotics. Last week I completed Machines of Loving Grace:
The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots by John Markoff. This week I am in the midst of Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. Both of these books raise issues about the relationship between computers, robots and people that should be of concern to us.

One of the foremost thinkers in this realm has been Ray Kurzweil, who in the mid-1980's wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines. Kurzweil, a futurist, predicted that a computer would beat a chess champion before the end of the century. And it did. But other things he's predicted are not as much fun to contemplate, because they involve possibilities that are generally reserved for science fiction. One of these is the rise of intelligent robots who become so smart they don't need programmers to make them smarter. They will make themselves smarter. The concept has been termed singularity.

In the film Ex Machina the word is uttered only once, but every computer geek knows what the word means. The Narcissistic robot-making genius is striving to make something so human it has a mind like a human, with constant capacity to learn more, and to teach itself. Wikipedia describes it in this manner:

The technological singularity is a hypothetical event in which artificial general intelligence (constituting, for example, intelligent computers, computer networks, or robots) would be capable of recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful machines than itself, up to the point of a runaway effect—an intelligence explosion—that yields an intelligence surpassing all current human control or understanding. Because the capabilities of such a super-intelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence.

The books cited above and others like them all point to a future where machines will be increasing displacing jobs and people Rise of the Robots begins with automation that is already being tested to replace fast food jobs. All through the Sixties autoworkers resisted the machines that were displacing jobs in Detroit. Repetitive tasks may be boring, but they paying jobs. On the other hand the machines never get tired, never need breaks, and never go on strike. The helped the shareholders and upper management obtain revenue while disrupting families and workers' lives.

Today a new wave of machines is coming and it's going to disrupt even more lives as robots and automation replaces white collar workers's jobs. I believe that there will need to be a complete re-thinking of how people are compensated or we've got a seriously problematic and potentially hurtful future ahead. By hurtful I mean, it's impact on humanity.

Which brings us back to Vonnegut. Player Piano was Vonnegut's first novel. Published in 1952 it addresses the negative impact increased automation will have on our quality of life. Here's the beginning of an overview of the book, again from Wikipedia:

The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut's later works.

And further on from the same source:

Player Piano is set in the near future after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation's managers and engineers faced a depleted work force and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war, when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium into "The Homestead", where every person who is neither a manager nor an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and managers live...

The automation of industry and the effect this has on society is predominant theme of Player Piano. It is "a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will." More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to, "a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use." Unlike much dystopian fiction, Player Piano's society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them which must be rectified.

The message of Player Piano is that people need to have a sense of purpose, and that if you take that away from them their lives will be empty. Many books address this issue, but Vonnegut combines it with a unique perspective that is quite perspicacious. That it predicted such a bleak future while the U.S. was enjoying a sudden burst of prosperity and "happy times" with jobs a-plenty, sock hops and dance parties, a bowling explosion and the rest, well, not very many people were giving much thought to the future that all this technology was going to bring us.

But it was an article by Jon Evans in TechCrunch that really got my brain stimulated this week. His title is "We should be worried about job atomization, not job automation." In this piece Evans reminds us that automation of labor is not all that bad. Wouldn't it be great if no one ever had to clean a toilet again? Or had to do mind-numbing, back-breaking repetitive tasks? Evans writes, "I submit that the actual problem is that full-time jobs are assumed as the fundamental economic building blocks of our society, and that we lack the flexibility or imagination to consider, much less move towards, any alternative structure."

I really think this is the crux of the matter. For may of us who have grown up reading about dystopian futures, our feelings coincide with Woody Allen's statement about death. "I'n not afraid... I just don't want to be there when it happens."

But what if those dystopian visions were nothing more than vapor. As the saying goes, 98% of what we worry about never happens.

No one entirely knows what the future will bring, simply because the law of unintended consequences is always going to be at work. Nevertheless, I will submit this proposal for consideration. The technology will exist to feed and shelter everyone and it may be that machines replace untold numbers of jobs, but the only real bottleneck will be how to make sure everyone displaced has a decent quality of life. So, do our politicians have the political will to take the lead on this, to really and truly tackle this problem? That's the bottleneck that I see. So I propose we find a way to replace the politicians and let good-hearted robots run the country. What do you think?

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While preparing for this blog post I queried Google (an intelligent machine) and asked what he/she/it thought of Watson. Google led me to this article by Kurzweil on the significance of Watson. Something to think about.

Meantime, life goes on... all around you. Make the most of it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Will Computers Put Journalists Out Of Business? Check Out These 7 Stories

For many of you this is probably nothing new and though I may have noticed it in my peripheral vision, recent events have caused me to take a more serious look at the future of journalism as a profession. Due to the internets we've already seen deep cuts on the payrolls of publishing houses these past twenty years, and I suspect the damage there is not yet done. One publishing house that used to have 60 magazines has either sold off or pared down their portfolio to ten publications.

Lately I've been devouring a number of books about the robotics, artificial intelligence and the future, including most recently Rise of the Robots and Machines of Loving Grace, both well researched and eye opening. What was formerly catching my attention out of the corner of my eye has now captured my full attention.

If you are a professional writer, or a student pursuing a writing career, you might wish to read through these articles and see how your career will mesh with tomorrow's advances in A.I. There's a part of us that cringes at the notion of art made by computers, or poetry. But what will the next generation think about these things? Check out the sixth story about how a computer covers a sporting event. There's almost no question that future fans will adapt fairly quickly to these automated game summaries.

Maybe one day I will get a freelance bot to write my blog post for me. Hopefully my efforts to put a bit of human personality in my writing will keep me in the game. But you never know. Those computers are getting pretty smart these days, and one day they might just figure me out.

The journalists who never sleep

And the Pulitzer goes to... a computer.

Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?

This Geek Will Put Reporters Out of Business
"Artificial intelligence systems can turn structured data into stories so sophisticated they're indistinguishable from those penned by humans. How robots are taking over the newsroom."

Will robots replace journalists?

Robo-journalism: How a computer describes a sports match

Will Writers Become Obsolete?

What's your take on all this? Just curious.

Meantime... life goes on. Hallelujah. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Designers to Talk About Minnesota Nice at Design DLH

Hard to believe we're nearing the end of another great Duluth Art Institute series. This one has been titled Design DLH, a series in which professional designers from various industries have been making presentations around various themes. This Thursday's topic is Minnesota Nice: Good, Bad, Nice? The programs begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Red Herring Lounge, 208 E. 1st Street. in Duluth.

This sixth and final session  of the series will feature Sean Elmquist, Chaperone Records; Candace Lacosse, Hemlocks Leatherworks; Chris Benson, Frost River; and the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Committee.

The program, if you haven't been to one yet, goes like this. Each Design DLH gathering incites local designers and creative thinkers to present ideas around a prompt that addresses some aspect of Duluth's visual identity. The focus of Session Six is the pros and cons of "Minnesota Nice": the politeness, the aversion to confrontation, and a tendency towards the stoic. As with all our other themes, this was looks to be again an interesting and potentially lively topic. Because space is limited, you will need to RSVP at

Sessions are free and open to the public. Can't make it? You can also join the conversation via Twitter, using the hashtag #DesignDLH.

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Also slated for Thursday is the Carlton Trunk & Tent Show at Carlton Bike Rental (CBR). Joelene Steffens, founder of CBR, also has an art framing business called Art Dimensions. Her work is of the highest quality. Though this event is designed for bicycle enthusiasts, I recommend CBR as a stop for creatives as well. The Trunk & Tent Show runs from 3 - 8 p.m., so theoretically you can make it to both events if (a) you are not working that afternoon and (b) begin in Carlton.

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This month's Design DLH topic might be interesting as a starting point for more discussion about the roles of art and artists in general. Occasionally we hear expressions of the sentiment "we can't afford for our artists to be politically neutral." Perhaps being Minnesota Nice keeps us from discussing this and other potentially divisive themes in the open square.

The designers who have been speaking all year at the Design DLH events are professional and commercial artists. There are some who might suggest that art and commerce should be separate from one another, but then I'd respond with this... do we want homes and appliances and cars with good design or bad design? It really is possible to let function become all that matters and ignore design. Aesthetics play a role in what we value.

Then there is the matter of motivation. Outside our Western art scene we learned from a Tweevening lecture this past year that in other parts of the world, especially the Orient, artist make objects of beauty for their own sake as opposed to making art to make a name for oneself. Art is a contemplative aiming for perfection versus self-absorbed self-expression.

Like life itself, we there are many paths we can explore. Fortunately there's no law that I know of that requires us to check our motivations at the door when we create.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Most of the Time -- Another Heartbreaker from the Dylan Catalog

There are so many layers to grief. Especially in a break up that breaks you as well.

Loss leaves a hole in your heart. And no one who enters a relationship does it with the aim of ending in failure. Loss and failure are two of life's hardest pills to swallow.

The song "Most of the Time" is the opening track on side two of Dylan's 26th album Oh Mercy. The 1989 album itself was critically acclaimed and sent a signal that Dylan was not a has been, could still pull together some great songs and record great music. Produced by Daniel Lanois, who produced award-winning albums for U2 and Robbie Robertson, the album was striking for the the moody ambience it created. One of the great songs produced during the Oh Mercy recording sessions was "Series of Dreams," a personal favorite for many Dylan fans that did not get included on the album when it was released. It found a home later in his great collection Greatest Hits: Volume 3.

The album quickly became one of my favorite Dylan albums when it came out, with nearly every song a favorite at one time or another during many listens. Much of the time it's "Most of the Time." In part it's the mood, in part, it's the word play. And in part it's simply the laconic, masterful way he delivers the lyrics.

Most of the time
I’m clear focused all around
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground
I can follow the path, I can read the signs
Stay right with it when the road unwinds
I can handle whatever I stumble upon
I don’t even notice she’s gone
Most of the time

Who hasn't been there? Is the singer trying to convince others or is he trying to convince himself? "I can handle it. I'm not distracted. "I don't even notice she's gone." But the truth is au contraire. And as the song moves forward there are a whole string of these statements of denial. "I wouldn't change it if I could." "I can deal with the situation." "I can endure." And most poignantly, "I don't even think about her." Most of the time.

Most of the time
It’s well understood
Most of the time
I wouldn’t change it if I could
I can make it all match up, I can hold my own
I can deal with the situation right down to the bone
I can survive, I can endure
And I don’t even think about her
Most of the time

It's typical of Dylan to find the nerve and follow it along, working it through all its permutations, extracting its juice. In his autobiography Chronicles he writes at length about this album, indicative of its importance to him personally and for his career. I was struck by how many verses he would write for many of his songs, sometimes as many as twenty or more. We only hear that which has been distilled and boiled down.

Most of the time
My head is on straight
Most of the time
I’m strong enough not to hate
I don’t build up illusion ’til it makes me sick
I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time

The song's bridge continues the theme but with an altered tune that almost seems to promise something new, but then falls back into the stream of its resignation to the way things are. It's hard to let go.

Most of the time
She ain’t even in my mind
I wouldn’t know her if I saw her
She’s that far behind
Most of the time
I can’t even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was with her

Most of the time
I’m halfway content
Most of the time
I know exactly where it went
I don’t cheat on myself, I don’t run and hide
Hide from the feelings that are buried inside
I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend
I don’t even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time

Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music

It's been said that one of Dylan's great achievements is how knowledgeable he is about music history, especially Americana. But another of his gifts has to be his ability to inwardly dredge those painful places in the soul and put into words what he finds there in a way that connects to universal truths about being human.

Though the somber mood on the album is generated through Lanois's layered production (compare to another Lanois produced song, "Not Dark Yet" on Time Out Of Mind), even live versions of the song can convey that same raw wound feel. Here's the original version of the song as it appeared on the album, accompanied by a photo montage of images familiar to most longtime fans.

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Each May the city of Duluth celebrates the birthday of their native son with a weeklong festival of Dylan-themed events. Several of these in the past have included a tribute concert called Salute to the Music of Bob  Dylan. The past two years Gene Lafond performed "Most of the Time" with a touching heartfelt power, and if it were possible I would share it here. Dylan himself performed the song 36 times in concert between 1989 and 1992.

For what it's worth, this year's Duluth Dylan Fest is ramping up to be richer and more rewarding than ever. Several additional events have been added to the schedule and you will want to make sure you follow it here.  Tickets are available at Eventbrite. You can find the link to tickets here on the BobDylanWay home page.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Embrace it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Law of Unintended Consequences as Illustrated by the Story of U.S. Steel in Duluth

99 years ago this month U.S. Steel announced the building of a steel plant in Duluth. It was not just any old steel plant. According to the Duluth News Tribune is was going to be a "MONSTER PLANT IN DULUTH." Along with the plant came the promise of prosperity for this small town that was destined to become the largest inland port in the world. Or busiest. Or something like that.

That the Iron Range was rich with iron ore was unquestioned. Getting the ore to market was being handled by railroads to the port in Duluth, and by ore ships to Cleveland on Lake Erie and on to the steel plants in Pittsburgh that would produce the girders to construct skyscrapers in New York.

But Minnesota politicians wanted a bigger share of the mining profit pie and a steel plant here would be just the ticket. There would be still more Minnesota jobs and wealth. To achieve this they decided to incentivize the building of a steel plant within the state's borders. How did the politicians induce this investment? They passed legislation to heavily tax the ore being shipped out, with one caveat. Any company that builds a plant in Minnesota would be exempt from this tonnage tax.

U.S. Steel, the nation's largest steel producer, had little interest in paying the these newly imposed tonnage taxes and was thus coerced into opening a plant here on the shores of the St. Louis River in Duluth. The plant was begun in earnest two years later and produced its first steel six years later.

Duluth did indeed grow. With a population of 52,000 in 1900, the new jobs had the desired effect, doubling the size of the city by the end of the Roaring 20's. Northern Minnesota mines would go on to produce heroic quantities of ore that went into as much as 90 percent of our war arsenal during World War II, a major contribution that indeed helped us win the war for the Allies.

But like many things in life, be careful what you wish for.

There is a scene near the end of Charlie Wilson's War in which Gust (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) tells a parable to Congressman Wilson (Tom Hanks) about a boy who gets a horse as a birthday gift. It's a great story about the law of unintended consequences.

Gust Avrakotos: There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse... and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. The boy got a horse" And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later, the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "How terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight... except the boy can't because his leg's all messed up, and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful."

Charlie Wilson: Now the Zen master says, "We'll see."

In the film, the application pertained to the arming and training of the Mujahideen to defeat the Russians in the 1980s. This training and these self-same weapons would later be a thorn in our own sides, as history has born out. (You can read more about the law of unintended consequences here.)

Getting back to our story... That U.S. Steel plant did eventually leave town. Times changed. And a lot of people were left by the wayside, as well as a very large quantity of spillage, debris and other aftereffects of turning ore into steel were left in our river.

At the time, many of the toxins that industry left in the nation's waterways or landfills were quite acceptable, as in legal. But so was slavery legal at one time. If we've earned anything at all from the Dred Scott decision, legal does not make a thing right.

Cleaning up the mess left behind when the steel plant left has been more than a mess. It's been an expensive mess. This section of the St. Louis River is now a federal Superfund site listed on the Federal National Priorities List, and costing millions upon millions of dollars to clean up. [EdNote: U.S. Steel has assumed most of the financial burden for this cleanup and a critical infusion of federal Great Lakes Legacy Act funds are speeding up the cleanup of contaminated sediments in Spirit Lake.]

There's another negative side effect of this U.S. Steel story. Because of the expensive and disastrous outcome here, the pendulum has swung so far the other way that it may never be possible to create jobs through the mining of natural resources again, for fear of another Love Canal... or U.S. Steel Superfund mess.

What will happen next? As the Zen masters says, "We'll see."

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Impetus for this article came from a story at and the One River, Many Stories project.

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