Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Flavin v. Fontana!

Dan Flavin
1933 - 1996


Lucio Fontana
1899 - 1968


Vote for the artist of your choice!  Votes go in the comments.  Commentary and links to additional work are welcome.  Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Reading List: The EarthSea Trilogy

The Earthsea Trilogy
by Ursula LeGuin

I. A Wizard of Earthsea 
II. The Tombs of Atuan 
III. The Farthest Shore 

I'm not 100% sure about my reading history with The Earthsea Trilogy.  I know I read them at least once as a kid, but at what age and whether there were multiple readings is lost to me.  I have carried a generally high opinion of them with me through life, despite remembering nothing much about them save that there was a lot of travelling around a world with lots of islands.

But, it turns out that I was remembering exactly what sets Earthsea apart from the run of fantasy fiction.  Earthsea itself, the land, with its archipelago of culturally and economically diverse islands, is a completely realized fictional environment.  As our hero and his friends shuttle hither and yon on adventures, they travel over and through a world that makes sense according to its own internal logic.  Our wizard is able to hitch a ride on a boat from Point A to Point B because climatic variation leads to agricultural specialization, and thence to a brisk trading economy, and thus to regularly scheduled maritime commerce.

Magic is at the heart of fantasy fiction -- it is more or less the genre's defining characteristic -- but it is often treated with a lazy anything-goes approach that frees an author to create or resolve situations with arbitrary ease.  In Earthsea, magic is integrated into the environmental and cultural ecology of the world.  LeGuin gradually explains the principles of magic and why it works, and -- quietly, in the background of the action -- explores how a pre-industrial human society would be different, and how it wouldn't be different, if there were people running around who could use paranormal powers to perform a broad but finite range of helpful tasks.

Of course, not everyone judges fantasy fiction according to the internal consistency of its fictive universe.  But I do.  Partly, that's just my interest in how the (real) world operates at the macro scale.  But also, I think that the function of speculative fiction (besides being diverting, which is of course very important) is to engage us in thinkin' about the way things might be different if some key assumptions were changed.  To do so is to get us thinkin' about what the key assumptions are, which is a way of thinking with more imagination and precision about how the world works.  And Ursula LeGuin is very, very good at this.  She comes by it honest.  Her mother and father were both among the most influential cultural anthropologists to have ever pondered a way of life.  LeGuin, too, is a great cultural anthropologist, working the same intellectual terrain as her parents; the only difference is that she dispenses with all that time-consuming and ethically problematic participatory research and instead just makes stuff up.

The Trilogy: A young boy of obscure birth discovers that he has amazing secret gifts and is sent off to a school for wizards.  It is a well-trodden storyline, and was very familiar even in 1968.  I would not want to invite invidious comparisons between boy wizards, but I note that this one manages to graduate in only 40 pages, and then moves on to make his way in the world.

The tone of the writing is simple and calm.  It is dry, like Tolkien is dry -- which is to say, it has a certain dignified gravitas.  Either writer can depict a merry village dance in terms of chin-stroking seriousness.  It's kind of a strange choice for tales of magic and wizardry, at first blush -- why not a breathless, golly-gee-whiz tone?   The answer, I think, is that both storytellers are working in the epic mode, more or less, and they employ an approachable version of the formal, heroic mode that humans have used to tell the tales of their great heroes since Homer was strumming his collective lyres.

The structure is interesting.  The first book is centered on the boy of obscure birth who will eventually become a mighty wizard (I won't use his real name, because it's not polite on his planet).  The two subsequent books continue his tale, but each introduces a new point-of-view character.  In the second and best of the books, it is a baffled young priestess of a nearly forgotten cult.  The wizard doesn't make an appearance until the halfway point, and even then doesn't have any lines for yet a few more chapters; if you weren't able to judge a book by its cover, it would be quite some time before you realized you were reading the second book of a trilogy.  The third book introduces a young prince who is clearly destined to become a great king, although we don't ever actually see it happen.

Does the wizard keep saving the world from a menace that threatens to destroy the very fabric of civilization?  Actually, no!  In the first installment, he makes a major gaffe and spends the rest of the book trying to contain the damage.  In the second book, he is essentially on a dungeon crawl to steal a magic bracelet (it's more dignified the way LeGuin writes it).  Only in the third book does he save the world from a menace that threatens to destroy the very fabric of civilization, and even then it does not involve vast armies of bloodthirsty goblins.  It does involve a sort of wizard's duel, but it is a somber, quiet sort of wizard's duel, more of a marathon survived than a gunfight won.

This is, as should be clear, a thinking person's fantasy adventure.  Is it a thinking young person's adventure?  It is widely regarded as young adult fiction.  Its sentence structures, pacing, and complexity of situation are all kept fairly simple.  The point-of-view characters are adolescents.  Yet in vocabulary and in, shall we say, metaphysics, LeGuin writes with the expectation that the reader will meet her halfway.  So what I think we have here is the upper end of "young adult literature," which is to say a work of adult literature that is fully accessible to a developing reader.

The Plot: Young boy of obscure birth becomes mighty wizard and has many adventures.  We get to read about his first, his last, and one of many in the middle; we are told almost as an aside that there's an awful lot of daring-do that happens between books.  After the last adventure, he makes plans to retire.

The Wizard of Earthsea v. Galdalf the Grey

Well, sure.  I've mentioned that Earthsea has a similar tone to Tolkien's trilogy.  And let's face it: Lord of the Rings casts such an enormous shadow over fantasy literature that it doesn't really make sense to think about any work of fantasy written before, I dunno, 2000 or so without reference to it.  Having said that, Tolkien was still relatively new in the 1960s (his trilogy was published in the 1950s, but took a while to make its full impact), and LeGuin might have been somewhat less under its shadow than, say, Stephen Donaldson a decade later.  She certainly falls further from the tree.  There is no overarching struggle between the forces of good and evil in Earthsea, there are no colorful humanoid species or their equivalents to be found, and there are no large questing parties; the supporting cast is very, very small.

I think it is interesting that the magic item that the Wizard seeks in the Tombs of Atuan is described very ambiguously.  It's portrayed as a "ring," but its not really a ring, or is it?  It is said to be too large to be a ring but too small to be a bracelet (although it will eventually fit around the wrist of an especially petite character).  I wonder if LeGuin is being sly here, both acknowledging her debt to the Lord of Fantasy Fiction but also asserting a measure of independence.  There's a quest for ring!  But it's not really a ring!  Or is it!?  And it's a key narrative element!  Or is it!?

Am I crazy?  Nah.  We are talking about a writer who is very conscious of the position of her work relative within the vast conversation of written fiction.  This is somebody who rewrote the Aeneid from the perspective of Aenea's wife, for heaven's sake (Livinia, 2008).  I think my theory has wheels.  As usual with my theories, you may use it for a dissertation in return for a 2% cut of your salary for the first ten years of any tenure-track or equivalent academic position.

Prognosis: I liked it a lot.  I'm glad I reread 'em, and I bet I'll do it again if I get my threescore and ten.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Jazz Thing, Round 1: Davis v. Frissell

The Jazz Thing, Round 1 (40 Word/Album Limit)

#2 Miles Davis – "Kind of Blue" (1959)  v.  #114 "Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones" (2001)

Obviously, it's in my interest as a jazz explorer to respect the #2 seed.  But, this older, pre-trippy Miles Davis stuff seems extremely tight and expressive, the apotheosis of club jazz.


Bill Frisell serves up a highly listenable cocktail of blues, new age ambient sounds, and jazz.  I'm always left feeling like his guitar setting -- big, warm, round -- is more central to the finished product then the actual music.

Kind of Blue beats Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones.

Match A3 is going to be a killer....

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Wednesday... hey, wait.

I Didn't Come Up With a Wednesday Post This Week
But the green masthead will reassure you that you've reached midweek.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round Two: Dix v. ...Braque!!

On June 30, 2012, the First Round match between Brancusi and Braque was declared a tie, and so Bronzino was pitted against Ford Maddox Brown, and a gazillion other little adjustments happened in the Tournament brackets.

Then, last week, on March 18, 2013 -- at 6:42 a.m. on March 18, 2013 -- Chuckdaddy left a comment saying that the count was off, that Braque had won fair and square.  And he was right.

This raises a serious question.  To wit: What the hell is Chuckdaddy up to, that he's counting votes for last year's contests at sunrise on a Monday morning?  Also, to a lesser extent, what should we do about Brancusi and Braque?

The answer: take advantage of a tie between Dobson and Van Doesburg and just slip 'em right back into the brackets.  It is an irregular and arbitrary measure, and thus perfectly fair and in the spirit of the Tournament as a whole.  Dobson and Van Doesburg will join the pool of artists who will eventually face the winners of the Play-In Tournament.

Members of the jury, I give you: our first real alphabet-spanning contest!

Otto Dix

Beat Jim Dine in a clash of the artists with seven-letter names in Round 1.


Georges Braque
1882 - 1963

Defeated Modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi in Round 1 in a thrilling come-from-behind one-vote dust-up! YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
Languished for the better part of a year after the victory was miscalculated as a tie.
Was reintroduced with Brancusi back into the brackets in the place of the Dobson/Van Doesburg tie, which really does seem to be a tie.


Vote for the artist of your choice in the comments, or any other way that works for you. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Another Scrap Quilt Finds its Kiddo

A joint post with the semi-dormant quilt blog "State of the Craft."

Last summer, I rattled out faces for a number of children's quilts (the number was "eight," in fact). After an epic excavation of my workspace, I have confirmed that three are still under construction. Four are already in the hands of various adorable children, as described here and here.

Make it five.  This one went out to one of my work partner's three year old girl last week.  He claims she likes it.  He claims, and has supported with photographic evidence, that she insists on sleeping on top of it, rather than underneath it.  He claims she wakes up in the middle of the night and talks to the animals in it.  I am unclear whether he sees this as a positive development.

The pictures aren't very good -- that's what happens when you don't check image quality before you give 'em away.

The Specs

Pompous Title: 8 Small Scrap Quilts for Children #5, "Green Checkerboard"
Serial Number: 66

Dimensions: 51" x 46"
Batting: Pieced scrap batting.
Backing: Pieced scrap flannel.
Quilting: Conventional machine quilting with scrap thread.  The top thread is a metallic, a first for me.

Begun: May 2012
Finished: February 2012

Intended Use/Display: Child's blanket.

Thanks to Mm Mud for her response to my last post, where I was hand-wringing about what to DO with the quilts I make: "Make it possible for folks to own one."  She might have been implying that I should sell them, which is not something that pencils out either financially or as a lifestyle choice, but it reminded me that people kind of like them, and will seldom resent them as a gift.  Or bribe.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Infinite Art Tournament, Round One: Fautrier v. Feininger!

Jean Fautrier
1898 - 1964


Lyonel Feininger
1871 - 1956
American; worked internationally


Vote for the artist of your choice!  Votes go in the comments.  Commentary and links to additional work are welcome.  Polls open for at least one month past posting.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Michael5000's Internet Funhouse 2013!

...being the logical heir to Michael5000's Internet Funhouse!! (2007) and Michael5000's Internet Funhouse 2008!

Fallen London

Flash games have come a long way, baby.  I discovered Fallen London over someone's shoulder at a birthday party back in November, and have been playing it pretty much continuously ever since.  It is a weird mash-up of collectible card game (sans the collecting), computer role-playing game, make-your-own-adventure novel, and bratty fantastical steampunk reimagining of Victorian culture and manners.  The gameplay is a fairly simple sequence of choices on a decision-making tree -- but it is a vast and mighty tree with many, many branches.  There can be a element of repetition, but if one action or area gets boring, there are any number of other choices to be made.

Plus, it is rather winning to be called "delicious friend."

One gradually builds up one's stats...

While pursuing any number of major or minor adventures.

The charm of the game is solidly in the writing and in the depth of content.  Having been knocking around for more than four months, I have continually expanded my horizons and field of potential action, but I can also tell that I have only just barely scratched the surface.  The creators claim that they are nearing the word-count of the King James Bible, another text that is rarely read in a perfectly linear fashion.

People who don't like Fallen London often don't like it because of the "Freemium" model: It's free to play, but offers certain advantages and extra content areas to people who throw in some cash.  The standard complaint is that you get only ten actions (an action "refreshes" every ten minutes) and that the game starts hounding you for money at that point.  I see this as a strength of the game.  Since it only allows ten actions, it is playable in a coffee break, or as a quick palette cleanser between this and that.  Or you can leave it up in the background all day and tinker with it as the mood strikes.  You very quickly become trained not to request that 11th action that you would have to pay for, and you move through the content at a leisurely pace.

You know how some games are "massively multiplayer"?  Fallen London is "minutely multiplayer."  You can interact with others, a little bit.  So, when you sign on, find me, Michael5000, and we can do something terribly intellectual together.

Rebuild 2

Or, if your tastes run more to surviving the zombie apocalypse, you might enjoy trying to restore civilization in Rebuild 2.  Block by block, you scavenge food and resources from the good old days, reclaim territory, and of course kill zombies, although the bulk of the killin' is offstage.

Actually, it is to a surprising extent a game of human resource development.  You work with your zombie survivors to build everybody's abilities, keep the team working well together, and empower everyone to fight zombies using their own individual strengths.  It's very dorky, and played on a map, so obviously I like it.  Good soundtrack, too.


"FreeRice?" you're thinking.  "Wasn't that an internet hit of 2007?"  And yes, it was.  At that point it was strictly a vocabulary quiz.  The advertising revenue it generated went to buy small quantities of rice for the world's hungry.  A nice idea.

At some point between now and then, it was acquired by the U.N.  Somebody put a lot of work into expanding and improving it, and then stopped.  The site has the unmistakable air of dust and neglect about it. But it is still up and running, and there are a couple dozen different quizzes available now.  Diligent IATers will like the surprisingly robust "Famous Paintings" quiz.  I've learned a lot from it!

I also like the math and flag quizzes a lot, among others.  The geography quizzes are underdeveloped, the literature quiz is impossibly random, and the English grammar quiz is riddled with errors.  Quirks aside, though, it's a fairly fun and ostensibly virtuous site at which to goof off.

Let's start a team!  I've just created a FreeRice group called "Infinite Rice Army," and I encourage you to go through the mildly laborious steps of creating a FreeRice account, joining the IRA (hmm...), and logging in from time to time to take quizzes and donate rice with me.  Perhaps in time we could be a mighty rice-donating power the likes of "Christians Fighting World Hunger" or "Buddhists Fighting World Hunger" or "Muslims Fighting World Hunger" or "Athiests Giving Aid," or the vast number of high school, middle school, and elementary school teams that dominate the team roster.

All the Elements of all the Months, in 15 Minutes

Want to improve your mastery of the periodic table?  Of course you do!  I've found that by taking this quiz obsessively over and over again, I've improved my ability to fill in the table from about 60/118 elements to, as of this writing, just over 100.  It doesn't earn anybody any rice, but it's quite diverting if you, like, enjoy elements.

My other favorite Sporcle quizzes are this list of classical composers and this maddening list of the world's most populous countries.

Think about that FreeRice team.  Don't leave me hangin'.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Play-In Artist SubTournament: Phase 1, Flight 9

Phase One Rules:
  1. You may cast votes for up to four artists.  
    • One vote per artist per person.
  2. Since play-in artists were nominated by your peers in the IAT community, including myself, courteous and affirmative voting is in order
    • Which is to say, no baggin' on the aesthetic sensibilities of the nominators.
  3. Full rules, procedures, and anticipated timeline for the Play-In SubTournament are available on the Play-In SubTournament page.

Phase 1, Flight 7 will be open until noon Pacific Time, Saturday, March 23.
Phase 1, Flight 8 will be open until April 21.
Phase 9 will be open for approximately two months.

Robert Maguire

Gunther Forg
Born 1952

James Avati

Jean Baptiste Oudry

Pavel Filonov

Baptiste Debombourg
? (contemporary)
probably French

Clifford Tjapaltjarri

Pierre Alechinsky
Born 1927
Belgian; works in France

Vote for up to fours artists! Votes go in the comments. Commentary and links to additional work are welcome. This poll will be open for approximately two months past posting.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Wednesday Post

The Stamp of a Great Artist
Burne-Jones and Brauner bask in philatelic glory, and Broodthaers doesn't.

It depends on whom you ask whether Edward Burne-Jones was a painter who did stained-glass design for a living, or a stained-glass designer who also enjoyed some success with his painting sideline.  Two of the three postage stamps I've found of his work are glass pieces, including one of the British Christmas issue of 2009...

...and another recent one, from a series on the work of the William Morris circle (Ed and Bill were best pals).

His painting The Beguiling of Merlin is featured in this stamp, but the dude with the beard is Alfred Lord Tennyson, not Burne-Jones.

Burne-Jones, one of the most successful painters of the British Pre-Rafaelite school, left the Tournament in January with a tough two-and-out, losing by a single vote in both contests.

You know what painter gets a lot of love from his native country?  Victor Brauner, that's who.  As a highly visible success from a country that traditionally values the high arts and has never been shy about cranking out more postage stamps than are absolutely necessary, Brauner may be one of the most philatelic of tournament artists.

...even though he mostly worked in France.

Postal ephemera, even!

And a few years ago, this entire sheet of Victor Brauner stamps.

All this stampy adulation probably takes the sting out of leaving the tournament earlier this month, having gone 0-2-1.

Marcel Broodthaers hasn't been featured on a stamp to date, so far as I've been able to tell.  But conversely, he featured some stamps in his Lettre (ouverte), or Open Letter, a lithographic work from 1972.

Broodthaer's notes on this piece read, as do most of his pronouncements, like the more cryptic Monty Python sketches:
4. The artist's initials are placed on the left, on a small strip which is more black than the rest of the background serving as a label. The initials would thus be the essential element suggesting narcissism.
5. The initials also refer to a purely plastic interpretation as they are set apart from the describable subject (in the darkness of a fake passé-partout).
Well, sometimes you need a little narcissism to see you through, as when you are voted out of an interactive art tournament with a record of only 0-2-1.