Monday, January 29, 2007

botero's abu ghraib paintings in berkeley

today i was lucky to hear fernando botero in conversation at berkeley. botero recently produced many paintings depicting the indignities and torture perpetrated by american soldiers in abu ghraib.

many galleries in america refused to show the paintings, which is a shame, because they depict horrible scenes that should be the launching point for discussion. botero stated that one reason he painted these scenes, as opposed to depictions of terrorist attacks, is because it was especially shocking for him to learn that america, the beacon of freedom, democracy, human rights, had perpetrated such an awful thing. he feels that the incident is the most awful black mark against america's reputation in recent history.

the image of the painting above is representative of the exhibit. the prisoners are prominent, and their loss of dignity is obvious. the torturers are usually represented by a gloved hand. the small window in the corner is a contrast to the claustrophobic atmosphere -- a hint of hope.

you can find more images here.

the nation has an article on the paintings. i think this quote nicely sums up the exhibit:
When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.

Botero's images, by contrast, establish a visceral sense of identification with the victims, whose suffering we are compelled to internalize and make vicariously our own. As Botero once remarked: "A painter can do things a photographer can't do, because a painter can make the invisible visible."
the exhibit is at berkeley's doe library. here's the info

Exhibition Hours and Location
Room 190, Doe Library
January 29 – March 23, 2007
Monday – Thursday: 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Friday – Saturday: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Closed on Sundays

Thursday, January 25, 2007

football and workplace injury

no matter where i look recently, there seems to be a trend in sports writing: long-term injuries in professional football players. the new york times had a general article titled "The N.F.L.’s Blue-Collar Workers," the sf chronicle examined injuries of the players from the 1981 49ers superbowl champion team, and the new yorker had an article looking at the ny giants recently retired running back tiki barber (not online, stupid new yorker), with quite a bit of discussion on the idea of retiring before the injuries really wreck his body.

here's a quote from the times article:

But despite all the trappings of a modern business empire, football — or more specifically its labor system — harks back to the 19th century. Like miners and dock workers of that time, the N.F.L.’s work force has little protection against job loss. Workers frequently toil outdoors in freezing temperatures. And they often literally put their lives at risk, as we were reminded last week when a neuropathologist claimed that the suicide of a former N.F.L. player, Andre Waters, was linked to brain damage he sustained while playing football.

“It brings to mind the high-risk jobs of the earlier industrial period,” said Raymond Sauer, an economics professor at Clemson University and founder of the Sports Economist blog.

To be sure, football players, with their generous paychecks, do not seem as exploited as those rail-thin miners dusted with coal. But compared with athletes who ply their trades in two other big-money sports — basketball and baseball — they’re strictly blue collar.

on particular injuries themselves, from the chronicle:
Keith Fahnhorst has a more fundamental wish: standing up straight. Fahnhorst, a mainstay on the 49ers' offensive line in the 1970s and '80s, stood tall at 6-foot-6 in 1981, but now he walks hunched over because of spinal stenosis and degeneration of the disks in his neck and back.

Fahnhorst, 54, also totes routine baggage for a longtime offensive lineman: worn, bent hands from years of grappling along the line of scrimmage. Fahnhorst said his left thumb and forefinger remain numb to this day, as they remind him every time he tries to button his shirt.

now, of course these people made a lot of money, and most of them say they would do it again, even with all the risk of injury. but to me, that sentiment seems to miss the point. the players and teams should examine whether the men on the field need to be exposed to so much risk when they play the game. from the articles, i gleaned that things were somewhat worse in the 70s and 80s, when players would hop right back onto the field after sustaining a mild concussion or injury, for fear that they would be benched and out a job otherwise. today, it's better, but i also read about a player who said that the hits these days are even crazier because all the new padding gives a false sense of security.

after reading these articles, i get the distinct feeling that the players do not have good representation at the table whe they negotiate with teams. the majority of players don't get paid that much, are in the nfl only for a few years, and leave with few benefits and a high risk of long-term injury. no matter how much money they make, the players deserve better.

this got me wondering about other types of long-term injuries, specifically mental ones, that could creep up on people in other professions. like lawyers. but i need to read more before i make any comments...

finally, in case you were wondering how viscious this stuff can be, watch this video (but be warned, it's awful!):

UPDATE on 2/1/2007:
here are two follow-up stories in the new york times that appeared as a result of their original reporting:

Dark Days Follow Hard-Hitting Career in N.F.L.
Ex-Players Say Increase in Pensions Is Needed

Monday, January 22, 2007

rewiring how we think

update: i made a shirt out of this. read below then check it out.
look at the picture below. what do you see?

Click here to see a clearer picture

look back at the original picture. i'm sure you see it now. unfortunately (or fortunately) you will likely always see the picture in this new way now. you're tuned into it.

i saw this in a paper i'm reading called Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction by Thomas Landauer.

what does this have to do with human-computer interaction? the paper is trying to make the point that an expert who has worked with a system for a long time can no longer think like a basic user, and hence we should be wary of relying on expert intuition alone when making usability decisions that might affect all users. landauer writes:

One you 'see' something, your cognitive structure (your brain, if you must) has been irreversibly changed, and you no longer see the world in the same way. What you could not see before you can now see easily, and it is virtually impossible to put yourself in the place of a person who has not had the same experience. If this brief experience can have such a dramatic effect, imagine what profound perceptual changes must result from tens or hundreds of hours of practice with an initially alien computer system.
of course, this idea extends beyond building usable computer systems.

it's fascinating to see that my brain has latched onto this structure. i did not see the cow prior to seeing the second image. now all i see is cow. what hope do i have of changing my perceptions about long-held beliefs where the evidence to the contrary might not be as clear-cut as the cow?

i miss the days when i could rewire my brain quite easily.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

more on charity

i just listened to an absolutely wonderful, insightful and nuanced kqed forum on charitable giving (follow the link and you'll find you can listen too!). michael krasny spoke with arthur brooks, an academic who recently wrote "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism." (pdf of wall street journal review)

don't let the title fool you that the book is wrapped up with the fact, borne out by numbers, that conservatives are more charitable than liberals. that's certainly interesting, but there's so much more to learn.

first off, brooks says he defines charity quite broadly, and so this includes not just what's on tax forms, but political action donations, blood donation, volunteer work, etc.. he uses massive amounts of data gathered over many years, both nationally and internationally, and he makes some surprising conclusions.

one of the most surprising conclusions was that young liberals are the worst givers (money and time). some people called in saying that they knew young liberals who do work X, and that work itself is charitable, and did brooks take that into account... brooks answer was quite reasonable, in my mind. how do you judge the "charity" of a particular job? ie, is a teacher doing a "better" thing than someone working at microsoft? he did acknowledge that certain people go into professions where they make far less money than if they went elsewhere, but they take that job for the "good" it will do. however, brooks was quite worried about making that value judgement, and i have to say that i'd have some trouble too, not just because i'm a scaredy cat.

there was lots of discussion about religion. brooks pointed out that religious people give WAY MORE than those who aren't religious. he speculated religious institutions do a very effective job of teaching about charity (there was some discussion about the motive "getting into heaven" if you are charitable). i was thinking that it'd be great if this kind of teaching moved more into the secular world, and that was discussed as well.

finally, people who give more are happier and more successful than those who give less. not sure how he measured those things, but it sounds good. i'm going to get the book and read more. stay tuned :)

charitable giving: more local?

i've been thinking a lot about charitable giving for the past few months (to learn more about random charities i was using charity navigator, which was useful). i'm still trying to think through my charitable giving goals: what matters to me? how should i best contribute to help? lately i've been thinking that i really want to help locally. i want to give locally, volunteer locally, local local local. why? well, i'm human, and it's easy for me to connect with local changes and what's going on around me, what i can see. more importantly, however, is that i believe we need to think about total wellness, and that's easiest to look at going outwards from yourself: your own wellbeing, your community's wellbeing, your society, other societies, the world...

of course, all these "wellbeings" can be prioritized. but how do you do that? someone recently said to me something along the lines of:
how can you give money locally when there are children starving around the world? when there are people with diseases that we can cure if only we have the money to pay for the inoculations?
these are important questions to consider. certainly it's not either/or.

most people where i live have shelter, food, and basic medical support. that can't be said for many people around the world.

perhaps my local push comes from a feeling, at least for me, that there's something really missing when i write my check to help inoculate children in africa. it's more than just wanting a philosophy to back my charitable agenda...

anyway, your thoughts on charitable giving are much appreciated.

below i've posted some findings from a study of young people's engagement in charitable giving done by the joseph rowntree foundation. you can find the report here.

  • Young people define 'charity' and 'giving' more widely than formal organised charitable activities such as giving money, focusing more on engagement through active involvement.See a list of related documents...
  • Charity is not seen as something only charities do; 'helping' others in the community informally is also seen as an important charitable act. Neighbourliness or something akin to citizenship is seen as a positive value, while giving time, in general, is seen as a greater effort than giving money and is often perceived as a more valuable gift.See a list of related documents...
  • Young people are themselves engaged in a variety of activities that come under a wider definition of 'charity', better defined as 'altruistic engagement': from giving goods to charity shops to buying the Big Issue, Fairtrade goods, recycling, campaigning and taking part in charity events. See a list of related documents...
  • The real level of young people's engagement with charity in the wider sense is being underestimated by traditional giving surveys and narrow approaches to measurement, which rarely include the type of activities mentioned by the young people.See a list of related documents...
  • Young people aged 16-24 are particularly likely to fall through the net of existing opportunities for engagement with charities.See a list of related documents...
  • There is a feeling among young people that the emphasis on raising money can be disempowering as they have limited funds to give and more to offer charities and voluntary organisations than money. Many feel that there are insufficient opportunities to give their time to charity, while only a few feel that there are insufficient opportunities to give their money to charity. See a list of related documents...
  • Young people want more information from charities about what is done with their money and how their donations effect change, and they believe that having more information would encourage them to give more in future. The vast majority think that they will be engaged, giving both money and time in the future.See a list of related documents...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

parking in sf

a few years ago we were driving around san francisco looking for parking. we were on a one way street when we passed a good spot. i hopped out of the car to stand in the spot while the car circled back.

things looked ok, until a woman drove up and said, "you can't do that. i'm taking that spot."

i stood there as she moved in, and the front of her car came within a foot of me. but she stopped, let loose all kinds of verbal abuse, and sped away.

fast-track to 2006: some friends are looking for parking around market and 2nd. a woman sees a spot and stands in it, holding it while the car can get there. a big man in a big truck comes, gets angry, but goes away, and they get the spot. my friends see this same guy (big man big truck) at the event they go to, and they literally duck and cover to avoid his gaze.

and then i read this in a new york times article on parking in san francisco:

Last month, the police announced the arrest of a second suspect in the killing of Boris Albinder, 19, on Sept. 16 near Golden Gate Park as he tried to save a parking space for a friend by standing in it. The authorities say Mr. Albinder was attacked by a group of men in a van who demanded that he cede the space.

parking etiquette

so, the question: was it wrong for me, and others, to hold a space as we did? should parking spaces be only taken by cars, and in that case, first come first served? i actually wonder if it's illegal, what i did. you'd think the law says something about it. but based on some quick searching, i find this comment in a news article which leads me to suggest that the law doesn't have much to say on this point. from a 1996 palo alto online article:

The problem even resulted in fisticuffs. Palo Alto police say they were called to the mall Sunday evening when a shoving match began over a parking space. A woman was standing in a parking spot to save it while her boyfriend drove around. The male driver of another car, however, apparently wanted the spot and began inching into the space. The result was a confrontation that required police assistance. Neither party wanted to press charges, said Palo Alto Police Lt. Jon Hernandez.
of course, i didn't search very much. one argument against such tactics is that it could make parking, already notoriously difficult, practically insane as people come up with all kinds of tricks to hold spots. i think people already have many tricks, but if things got out of hand the law would really need to get involved. this video shows things getting out of hand:

anyway, it seems there might be a ghost truck going around san francisco attacking people who hold spots by standing in them... so i'll be cautious.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

be it resolved that ...

back in canada i used to do debating. i was reminded of this when i saw an interesting article in this week's new yorker about the intelligence squared u.s. organization. they arrange oxford union style debates between world-class debaters and experts on important topics. the debate written about in the article concerns the resolution: "hollywood has fueled anti-americanism abroad."

an oxford union style debate has three affirmative speakers and three opposition speakers. we'd do the same thing back in high school, usually in a parliamentary style. anyway, mild heckling was always encouraged and there were many good times. the debate resolutions would be serious (be it resolved that euthanasia should be legal in canada) to amusing (be it resolved that two plus two is not four) to odd (be it resolved that i fought the law and the law won).

i miss it. there must be debating groups in sf and berkeley. i'm going to find one.

i was trying to find a video example of a parliamentary or oxford union style debate when i stumbled upon this video of malcolm x talking at the oxford union. i'd never really seen much footage of him, and found it riveting.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

bad notes: infovis is important in know. cryst.

i'm going over my margin notes for a paper on information visualization. there's a subsection of the paper devoted to knowledge crystallization.

i clearly wasn't with it when i wrote this note. the scribble reads "infovis is important in know. cryst."

now, given just the stuff i describe above, we already know that. there's an entire section of a paper on information visualization devoted to it! this note is vacuous. i must've been really tired!

i'm trying to get better at knowing when i'm toasted, as i was clearly when i read this paper the first time. i have a bad habit of working beyond my mental or physical means (in the physical world, this has led to repetitive stress injuries...)

well, glad i'm going over the paper again.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

children of men

just saw children of men (94% on rotten tomatoes) and it's a great science-fiction movie. set in the near future, women have become sterile, and no children are born. the world has gone crazy, with most countries war-torn. however, england soldiers on, holding back many refugees that want to come in, trying to maintain a standard of living for the remaining brits.

anyway that's the background, but of course with just that background the movie could be awful. however, clive owen is fantastic, and the movie maintains a steady pace and doesn't get off track.

highly recommended. the trailer is below:

Monday, January 01, 2007

new year's resolutions

i don't have any. i don't believe in them. i try to think about my life goals as is appropriate, and so focusing on these goals at the change in year (06 -> 07!) doesn't do me much good.

i think it's the same with my family, but you can be the judge.

my father's new year's resolution is to quit smoking (my father doesn't smoke).
my sister's new year's resolution is to make her husband vegan again (he went local-organic in march and he's made their house practically a butcher shop ;) )

ours is not a family of resolutions.

happy new year!