Friday, June 22, 2007

what's daily life in iraq like?

I highly recommend the NYT's Q&A with its reporters in Iraq about daily "Life in Iraq" -- it's very telling and discusses a wide spectrum of problems and topics... from the realities of reconstruction, what it's like to work in the Red Zone, to comments by an Iraqi reporter about life for children, and reflections on an exchange with a group of female Iraqi architecture students -- this is life on Earth, now.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Earlier this year, in March, I traveled to Japan to see my brother. It was phenomenal!

Japan shares a likeness to the west, but is another world. It was my first non-western experience. I loved the architecture, the mix of the old and new, and so much more. Japan has such a distinct smell, a sweet smell. On my first night my brother Alan took me to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto -- a perfect way to begin the trip, as so much in Japan is tied to or somehow related to the tea ceremony and its environs and practices. The tea was a rich, bright green; thick in flavor, consistency, and hue.

Before I left, I had read that the tatami mat has played an important role in shaping the scale of Japanese architecture. Turns out that it's true: the room where we had tea ceremony, for example, was totally scaled to the tatami mat! The floor had eight tatami mats creating a square, and each of the walls was scaled to four tatami mats standing upright in width and one and a third tatami mats in height. What amazed me further was that the subdivided detailing on the walls -- the wooden framing and bars on the screens and the space between them -- was also broken down in smaller scale based on the mat's original size. Japan is a lesson in scale.

My brother lives in Hirakata, which is right between Osaka and Kyoto. Hirakata, a city of 400,000, is considered countryside but by my American eyes looked like a city. I was struck by the many farms and garden-plots located throughout the residential neighborhoods of Hirakata. Such an arrangement would make a pretty good planning model: designing neighborhoods with small garden and farmland plots every five or so blocks. And then, why not have the homeowners, upon purchasing or renting a neighborhood property, also automatically purchase or rent a parcel of the garden and farmland, and even place this in homeownership contracts?

I learned that most of the homes in the new developments are also purchased prior to their completion; the result is neighborhoods of people who know each other even before they move in. Extended families all move in near each other, and people buy into a community. My brother said many of the elderly tend the gardens -- where they grow the ubiquitous but varied "mountain vegetables" among other things. The grandfather of the family whom my brother lives with (who lives just a block away) grew many of the vegetables we ate for dinner.

My brother and I were in Kyoto for a few nights, then took the shinkansen bullet train to Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture), then went by bus through the Japanese Alps (a snowy fantasy landscape more beautiful than a dream can render) to the small mountain town of Takyama (where we slept at a Buddhist temple youth hostel and ate at a 200 year old restaurant with amazing food, among other things), then took trains to Toyota to visit my brother's friend who is a Mormon missionary (and made friends with other missionaries from Brazil and Hawaii; one of the Brazilians grew up in a squatter city and we had very interesting conversations), and then traveled back to Hirakata, and took day trips to Osaka and Kobe -- each extremely fascinating -- and spent the last night in Kyoto.

We stayed at Ryokans in Kyoto and explored various parts of the city. The new downtown and entertainment district, Gion (the old entertainment district) and Kiyomizudera (absolutely fantastic temple complex!) at night, and Arashiyama, a beautiful part of north-western Kyoto with a river and hills of maple and cherry blossom trees, and a bamboo forest adjacent to cemeteries that we wandered through. When we were in Gion on my second night, there was a pre- Sakura (cherry blossom) festival where the entire old town was lit up -- stunning old alleyways, pagoda temples with many roofs, many people, beautiful arrangements of flowers -- animated existence. We also saw various other temples, jinjas, and gardens in the city that we discovered and stumbled upon. During the pre- Sakura festival with Gion lit up, we wandered through alleyways where many people, mostly men, had set up their cameras on tripods and stood photographing the alleyway from one angle over and over again. We also stumbled across a "noh" play being performed during the festival. As my brother described, a "noh" play recants over about five hours an experience that took about five minutes.

In Osaka there are covered streets full of shops and restaurants. (Such streets are also in Kyoto but not as large, and they are apparently even larger in Tokyo). These malls, or rather, gargantuan arcades, made me think of Italian arcades, yet they are an entirely distinct form and function under their own rules. Extending for miles, to look into one of these streets flooded with thousands of people, stores, lights, sounds, colors, smells, is to peer into the depth of a perspectival vanishing point. We wandered around the "namba walk" area (which is an enormous underground mall) and outside on many streets packed with a bewildering array of high-rises, neon signs, electronics shops, and girls and boys with eccentric fashion tastes.

Alan I went to Kobe with a couple of his American friends (one who was travelling with us from that point on) and two gorgeous and really friendly Japanese girls. I could sense the western planning, post-earthquake influence: the downtown area by the waterfront felt like San Francisco in scale and street-to-building proportions. As monumental reminder, there's a chunk of earthquake-destroyed harbor still resting by the water nearby the "Harborland" development; it really hits home the intensity of the quake: horribly huge and disastrous. Post-disaster reconstruction strategy was also evident, it appeared, in commercial development. I suspect it was used as a mechanism to pay for reconstruction: Harborland is a fascinating complex of very large malls and hotels, connected by walkways that span over streets, many fancy stores, and even an ironic protestant church (with tennis courts next to it) placed in between it all. The same night we were in Kobe we trekked into Osaka for Kareoke and caught a very packed, very last train on our way back to Hirakata.

Food definitely had an impact on my experience in Japan -- a story in itself. There are so many kinds. I tried "nato" over breakfast in Matsumoto while the family of my brothers' friend looked on. Nato is fermenting soybeans. Can't say I enjoyed nato, but glad I tried it. Matsumoto is amazing by the way, with mountains that fill half the sky and sit on either side of a long valley. My brother and I also were taken to a wasabi farm in Matsumoto -- Shinsyu azumino daio wasabi farm -- gorgeous, a blue-sky day, light twinkling on the surface of water streaming through rows of green wasabi roots planted in grey gravel, set within what was like a river -- it was like something out of an anime! We tried wasabi ice-cream and wasabi juice! Matsumoto also has an amazing 400 year old, original castle that's spectacular in beauty and might.

While we were in Takayama, we ate breakfast at a little Japanese restaurant recommended to us by the Buddhist monk who ran the youth hostel. Traditional breakfasts are usually composed of a little egg (a block of scrambled-egg-like substance called Tamago), a little fish, mountain vegetables, pickled vegetables, a bowl of rice, miso soup, and green tea. When my brother gave our order, the middle-aged stout woman at the restaurant smiled and asked us if we wanted to have raw egg over our rice -- this was translated by my brother. (my brother did all the translating!) I said no way, I did not want raw egg! But my brother decided he wanted it. Alan ate raw egg over raw beef once before about a year ago, so he figured he could do it again... well... so, Alan is eating the raw egg poured over his rice, and he cringes and I ask him, how it was. "Horrible," he replied but he continued to eat the whole bowl of rice.

After seeing some amazing traditional Japanese architecture later that day, we were about to miss our train to Nagoya (to head to Toyota) because we had spent so much time exploring the architecture. Alan ran to the train station while I simply walked fast. When we arrived at the station we had missed the train and Alan was complaining of aches all of his body and a sense of dizzyness.

In Toyota we stayed with an English student of Alan's friend who is a Mormon missionary (they teach English). Over an amazing dinner prepared for us and the Mormons, Alan let's us know that he thinks he's going to pass-out and heads to the bathroom. To make a long-story short, he's in terrible shape, and once we finally get back to Hirakata a day and a half later, we go to the hospital (another story) and Alan learns that he has contracted an intestinal virus! He gets medicine and isn't supposed to eat anything other than rice (and Sake), and that day we also head out for a day trip to Kobe.

I should note that I might have picked something up from him, or something else, because from the point on after Alan got sick, I ate almost nothing. I lost my appetite completely. This had some consequences... more stories... it was really something and strange. I'd never lost my appetite like that before. By the way, the next morning after Alan became sick, we met up with the Mormons at the train station and went with them to get lunch... at a donut shop called Mr. Donut. Not only was I not hungry but the donuts really turned me off... and I couldn't muster the appetite... there were a lot of wild donut flavors, such as curry-filled donuts!

And there was also the gates of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, which pose the fundamental questions of existence: What is space? What is time? What is the purpose of life? A gate means a change in space, it is a threshold and a boundary. What is inside/outside? What is before/after? In Shinto, a sacred space could be on either side of the gate. The gates, when lined up in repetition, one after the other, create a path.

One comes to ask, what is this path? As each gate is paid for by different companies (their names engraved on the pillars in Japanese), a great irony emerges in light of the religious context: it appears as if the religion wants you to think there is only one path, as this is so with the gates. And as long as people keep sponsoring and paying for the gates, there will be one path for us to walk within!

My brother and I walked within the gates' path for quite some time, halfway up the mountain. Light slid in-between the pillars of the gated passage. Looking out from within the passage, there is a forested landscape, visible but inacessible. What is outside the gates' path? What is the space beyond? Visible but unknown, real but untouchable, assumed but unclear. Each gate alone is one moment. Each gate is one frame. Each gate frames the moment. Time does not exist from within a single gate. A path gains the element of time. The procession of gates transforms the space of the gates into a path. When the procession of gates is long enough to arouse time in space, then space flows, and is animated, into the path. The path -- articulated at Fushimi Inari -- is a manifestation of time itself rendered in space.

I love the main train station in Kyoto -- Kyoto station is a brilliant design with a soaring atrium at its heart, pulsating with the rhythms of people pattering across many patterns of paths from trains to shops within the station, a giant mall, up and down escalators, stairs and walkways, and out into the street. One of the most beautiful things about the atrium is that you can climb either side of it, sending your body into a fantastic state, one caught between a consciousness of being in physical reality and a perplexing sense of unreality -- a virtuality -- brought on be the sheer scale and animation of everything within!

I fell in love with the structure as it hurled me through architectural contortions in depth and density, form and reflections, light and color, and movement up into the heavens. On one side there's a very long staircase that climbs to the top of the grand building. Upon arriving at the zenith, one finds a "happy terrace" (a play on words because of the literal translation from Japanese) with magnificent views sending radiance throughout Kyoto, a city of age, power, transformation, and landscape. By the windows there are also plaques featuring architect Hiroshi Hara's statement for the building. At the top, one finds a reflection back upon the landscape in which we came.

There were many things that I couldn't have predicted, nor did I have expectations about. There is a huge abundance of traditional-style architectural elements applied to residential buildings -- this I did not anticipate and took me by surprise -- comparable to the dominance of ranch-style single-family homes in the USA.

Japan is animated, as in brought to life! So many things I truly loved, and a fair amount of things that repelled me. It is an absolutely amazing world. My brother's sensai says that Japan is the dumping ground of Asia for cultural influence -- new things, such as architecture, are brought there and integrated, absorbed, but they do not dissolve the traditions and that which is Japanese. The simultaneity of difference in the world -- across here and there -- is like the simultaneity of many places, of many people, and of night and day.

On my last night I watched a "shadow of light" cast itself on a wall within our room at the Kyoto ryokan we stayed in. A "light shadow" cast upon a canvas of darkness, the opposite of a shadow of darkness cast out of light during the day -- it was beautiful. I would like to return.

If it were not for being with my brother who is mostly fluent in Japanese, I'd have been completely lost. A great bonding experience between me and my brother. My brother went to great lengths to immerse me in the culture -- it was lifechanging!

(c) M. Waxman, May 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

delicious things politicians read

In my recent May, 28, 2007 post on "MySpace Impact" I described the production quality of Democratic Candidate Chris Dodd's video message. "While I think he has an admirable message in his video, on the one hand, it's poorly produced with bad lighting and sound. His video is very jarring when contrasted to the fancy, fast-paced media of music videos or even Richardson's video. On the other hand, the poor quality of the video and the self-consciousness of his addressing the camera shares a lot of common ground with the quick-and-dirty work of casual video-bloggers on YouTube."

In response, Tim of the Chris Dodd campaign commented:

"That was the point when we created Dodd's video ... especially since we asked people to respond with their own. How many youtube users creating original content do twenty-seven takes and use Final Cut Pro and all kinds of special effects with $3,000 worth of lighting?

Chris Dodd for President"

My response to Tim:

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comment! Excellent point. I did a quick search on YouTube and wasn't successful in finding responses. Although I did browse Dodd's MySpace blog posts and noticed a few videos posted, some seemingly authored by Dodd's staff and some authored by Dodd supporters. The most common theme I observed is a review of Dodd's stance on issues and a promotion and celebration of campaign fervor.

The Sunday, June 3, 2007 MySpace blog post features a YouTube video with Dodd responding to questions from various undisclosed websites. This is probably a great example of the YouTube-like, low-production quality video you're describing.

About two-thirds into the video, Dodd commented on the difficulty to answer complex questions in under one minute in Presidential debates. The question was: "What kind of practice do you do for the debate? Do you do any drills of any kind?" Dodd responded by saying that, with the help of his staff, he's working to "get tighter on these answers" but that it is nonetheless a major challenge to condense complexity because of time requirements for (presumably) televised debate.

I'm straying from the topic of production quality, but I think here the question of content quality arises. And while the video gives a bit more expanded answers, it only goes so deep in giving us a picture of Dodd.

The challenge of conveying complexity when confronted with time limits is an important skill and a challenge, and I totally understand what he's saying.

Last week I was brought onto KZSC, my alma mater UC Santa Cruz's radio station, to be interviewed by journalist Bruce Bratton on his show "University Grapevine" about long-range campus planning, university growth and student housing issues. We had a great live conversation over the course of a half hour. I think both Bruce and I came away feeling we could go deeper and that we only began to scratch the surface of these issues. Having done interviews and lectures on the same subjects before, I've found it to be both problematic and important to pack an overview or analysis of a very complex issue into a brief span of time. You want to give it clear and concisely but you also don't want to lose the meat. I found myself commenting near the end of the interview about the subject's complexity and remarking that noting its complexity is not to gloss over things but instead an invitation for listeners to get out there, do research, and learn more.

Reviewing Dodd's website may have keyed me into a partial answer to this challenge of packing big information into little packages, and the sociable web is part of the answer...

Dodd's MySpace blog posts are titled as "blog round-ups." At first I thought these posts were a round-up of blog posts Dodd read from around the blogosphere. Then I realized the round-up was of blog posts from the main Dodd website. It's great to follow the campaign trail and see reviews of Dodd's political stance, but I was actually hoping to have a peek into Dodd's favorite blog posts or news articles he reads!

What if this was the case? What if Dodd actually had a blog round-up of news stories and articles, websites and information? I really like this concept and think it could be pretty influential. It'd make a great complement to the video messages.

One of my favorite blogs, Ethan Zuckerman's "I left my heart in Accra", which has a heavy theme of Africa and social-tech activism, runs a regular links round-up with commentary. Akin to the lists found on websites around the net (see mine to the right), what's great about Ethan's links and commentary is that they give us a view into what Ethan's reading and allows his internet research and inquiry to reach us easily.

Reading Ethan's links (or mine) also gives the reader an unusual backdoor to ongoing thought processes. The reader can peer into the internet-connected-mind's non-linear gathering of information, web surfing, blog browsing, life and world puzzle jumbling and reorganizing, and appreciation of knowledge, research and thoughts of others.

A challenge for politicians is connecting with constituents on a meaningful level. Sometimes the politician-constituent connection happens on an aesthetic branding-like level dependent on heavy framing (think GW Bush) and sometimes it happens because of heart-felt messages and well-crafted, honest communication work (think Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth). Getting a politician's character across is key, but I'll add to this that helping constituents gain a sense of transparency when it comes to the politicians own accumulation of knowledge is also important -- here those links come into play.

When the reader gains a perspective onto the mind of the politician (or, frankly, whomever is collecting the links), the reader feels more comfortable with that individual. And even if one disagrees with a politician's party or political standpoint, the ability to see what a politician is reading enables both the politician and the reader-constituent to see the influencing information, the factual or opinion-based content, directly and make their own decision based on the same sources of information instead of a diluted filter such as a television ad, brief interview, or debate dominated by buzzwords and rhetoric.

Where does the politician get his or her information? With what frequency does the politician read information and from what sources? What are they reading, what fascinates them, and what publications, authors and subjects do they like to check out? Might the politician care to influence me with their recommendations of great articles, books, websites, or even, say organizations, businesses, and places to see and visit? Can the Presidential candidates compete to influence me, to compete to share with me their thoughts? Can they work hard to not only influence me by TV ads, but also do so by sharing with me their influences and inspiration? I want in on their own, personal research process inquiring about the world!

Reading a politician's links list would help answer these questions. (I'd also like for honest authenticity to be established, and a way for me to know if the list is actually coming from the politicians.)

Candidate Chris Dodd's prompt for v-bloggers to post responses does somewhat move in this direction by establishing an added communication link. Dodd's website even advertises that a "DTV" is in the works (I imagine it will have even more frequent video messages from the man himself?).

Dodd should keep up his plan to video-blog -- they are great practice for live debate and give us a virtual in-the-flesh experience -- but they should be complemented by a links blog round-up.

Now Dodd needs to make his blog news expand beyond the campaign website and show us what he's been reading.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

body: internal and external stimulation

In the Spring of 2006, before graduating from college, I took a modern dance class. Learning (and struggling with) dance -- something I knew I would enjoy and knew I must try -- was quite beautiful and very fun. Sketched on March 6, 2006, what follows is reflection on internal and external stimulation, the interior of the body and its relation to architecture:

In modern dance class my teacher spoke about the difference between "internal stimulation" and "external stimulation". Laying on the ground, flattening our backs to the floor, and then arching our spine up and down, she spoke of how most people, everyday, expose themselves to continuous external stimulation.

The first image of external stimulation that came to my mind was myself sitting at the computer screen: engrossed, and totally stimulated through the external image in front of me. My body, aside from my hands typing (as I am doing now), or my head geared forward and focused on an area of the screen, is not stimulated and is disconnected. I also imagined my apartment mates who spend the majority of their waking hours sitting in front of the television, or the people I would observe at parties who never seemed to be doing anything but the social ritual of heavy drinking, shouting at each other, and being driven (it seemed) entirely by lust and hormonal desire... the folks I'm thinking of always appeared distracted and not aware of themselves in their surroundings.

My teacher said people need to turn inward and focus on the internal of the body and learn to be tuned to and give internal stimulation. As she said this, I turned my head and saw her lying on her back. Her legs were beginning to arch upward in an outward curve bent at the knees. Her body was totally set within the space around it. Set within the space between the floor and the ceiling, the mirror behind her and the reflections of opposite windows, the entire scene was truly beautiful form.

Thus to consider internal stimulation, I observed, is to sense and be with the internal of the body. And as I turned away from her and looked upward, I saw the building around us in much the same light: we were inside the building, and the structure of the building, like our skin, is separation between the internal and the external. On the scale of the body, past the skin, there are muscle, organs, bone, and water, all interacting dynamically as a fluid presence yet solid mass. I believe (and I know this is true for myself prior to that moment) most people, most of the time, forget about their internal fluid mass. A very important part of one's life, it is the body of space within the body whose presence is very sacred and yet vitally invisible.

The building is then, like the skin, a membrane, a separation between internal and external realms. It is always through the building that we see the external. Yet it is always in the external that humans situate one's mind to engage life within a concept of greater context. The body is the same: we see through our eyes and live through the presence and function of our internal organs, but in our senses we peer through our bodies and situate ourselves beyond our skin and into the world, never looking and only knowing of the other half of life's lived space, that which is embedded inside of us forever.

As I write, I am now realizing that this body of space, the body's interior, is permanent and timeless. We cannot live without it. We cannot experience without it. We cannot grow or change, or be, without it. But this raises a very interesting question: is that always so? Lived life only knows a perspective whose origin is from the body. (Not to forget human beings are born from the bodies of their mothers'.) But can one transcend the body, step away from the body, exist as pure spirit, or be a ghost of sorts?

This is dipping into a heavily treaded domain, but I am not sure I can answer. I consider myself spiritual, but my spiritual moments have come from not inward focus to leave the body, but rather from moments of placeness and contextualization across time and space. Spirituality and experiences that have been critical to me, above all, engage my body within the space it is part of. Why would one want to leave the body? Leave the world and space? Essence and spirit, I suspect, does not leave the world, but embeds itself within it. If humans hold within them spirits and if they can transcend the body past the body's death, it is the spirit-mind-body-context relation but an inversion of order: spirit inhabits context of which then peers outward to look back at the body, spirit-context-body-mind.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

We live with the assumption of performing factual lives.

Actions taken or not taken are factual objects; they are cause for statistical bias.

Though, to live inside a solely factual life is a canard.

Life stories are told and sometimes become objects of recollection memorized and repeated, transformed into a facsimile with the quintessential purity of a Compact Disc.

But if they linger within the imagination before regurgitation, might their repetition make their existence open to interpretation? Why accept one's history as simply a matrix of simple objects whose depth is left characterized at surface level? Why abnegate anything further?

Might fiction be open to enjoyment? An ever-capricious later portion of one's life always hovers in semi-fictional future-tense. The scenario must be respected for its respect to trends and past and sustaining factual basis, but the scenario is also built with imagination, conjecture, and perceptive observation. Is it not salubrious to exercise the ability to mould the world -- and the telling of its stories? Such is done in books, movies, art, architecture, and the oratory... media of representation and materialization... and it may also be embedded in lived, physically-real livelihoods.