Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Death Spiral


The Death Spiral: aviators’ nemesis. Many a flyboy has bitten terra firma due to the dynamics of positive feedback, where more control input, intended to halt the earthward helix, results in more spin, not less. What are needed are counter-intuitive control inputs. Also evident is that some aircraft designs are peculiarly prone to such life-terminating nonlinearities.

The US Navy’s Grumman-built F-14 Tomcat fighter plane was prone to a similar problem, known as a flat spin. Initiated by an engine flameout that translated unbalanced thrust into unintended yaw, once in such a spin the control surfaces operated less efficiently due to lack of proper airflow. Numerous pilots lost their lives, until techniques were developed, and implemented throughout the fleet, to counteract the aircraft’s tendency to obey Newton’s Third Law.


I was pondering the phenomenon of the Death Spiral, self-propagating through the effects of positive feedback, as I was reading the news of massive layoffs across the entire economy. The pundits are prolific in their examination of “where the bottom might lie,” meanwhile massive government debt-spending is multiplied, as “bail-out” packages are implemented, causing the printing of more paper currency and increasing short-term debt loans, principally from Asia, which further devalues US currency and massively increases federal debt. The Death Spiral.

As the economy collapses, businesses utilize classic management techniques of workforce reduction, resulting in massive unemployment. The unemployed are therefore no longer able to continue their lifestyle of consumer spending, thus retail revenue plummets, further impacting the industries that market their products and services to the masses. The Death Spiral.

The so-called “safety net,” intended to provide a base level of sustenance to those in economic peril, is as mythological as is the notion of the “popular vote” in federal elections. Our constitution, that archaic parchment of moldering quaintness, demands an Electoral College method of Presidential election. Hence, there is no “popular vote,” nor an official federal tabulation of such a statistic. Similarly, the notion of a social safety net is as intangible as are the jobs that the needy require, and the solvency of the Social Security fund that they expect. The right to pursue happiness has been denied us.

What appears to be certain to this observer is that the Global Economic Death Spiral will continue, despite the best efforts of governments to “pull us out” of impending doom, because conventional control inputs serve to merely propagate the effect. Positive feedback.


As has been noted, some aircraft are more sensitive than others to this Death Spiral Effect; so too are global economies. The question before us is that of the viability of Global Capitalism as a sustainable economic model. It is no mere coincidence that the rise of Global Capitalism, and its consequent effect upon both socialism and democracy, occurred simultaneously with the policy and regulatory relaxations that brought about the banking crisis. A layman’s observation of these effects would conclude that the two are inseparable; merely two sides of the same historic trend.

Just as Global Capitalism fundamentally compromised classic models of socialism – witness the People’s Republic of China being the single largest supply-side provider to the world’s consumer economy – so too did classic principles of democracy suffer under the onslaught of corporate entities which, emboldened by the privilege of legal personhood but absent the responsibility of citizenship, embarked upon campaigns to alter government labor, tax and regulatory policies in favor of a corporate oligarchy. The result is that, as we stand on the precipice of unimaginable economic uncertainty, the citizenry lack the basic privilege of bankruptcy laws that protect corporate entities, the de facto supra-citizen. In this era of unprecedented levels of corporate bailouts we expect the individual citizen will be the one doing the bailing; meanwhile the leaky boat continues to founder. And we, in steerage, lack the privilege afforded those who have already been assigned a lifeboat.


What are needed are non-intuitive control inputs. Sever the cycle of positive feedback. Corporations, the employers to the citizenry, need to take the holistic view. There are not many Walmarts in Bangladesh or Chad or The Congo. And for good reason: just as a rising tide floats all boats, neither can a vessel stay afloat in a muddy quagmire. Having taken the helm of the global ship, corporations have yet to see their responsibility as that of leadership. History will prove that the corporate entity has now displaced government as de facto leader of the global economy, yet their vision appears to remain in the past. They will not survive, and neither will our prosperity, unless they see their responsibility as that of ensuring adequate employment. Employment yields affluence, which drives economic growth, which feeds the Corporate State. Yet the responsibility of the corporation does not end there. The ecological infrastructure is also critical for the long-term sustenance of the Global Corporate State; hence renewed vision will be required, driven not by outside government-led or populist-centered environmentalism, but by mere self-interest. A collapsing global environment is bad for business.

Governments are in denial, for they are under the antiquated misconception that the State, as a tangible representation of the theory of civil government, remains in power and control, and that corporations are mere agencies of the “private sector.” They have missed the baton pass, for the demise of the Soviet Union did not happen in an historic vacuum. Both the centralized model of socialism and the individualized, distributed model of self-government called democracy have been fundamentally compromised. Their era is passed, has gone. The global corporate oligarchy now reigns; yet they remain fundamentally in total denial to their collective responsibility.


As we go forward, we will require a hybridization of classic government policy with corporate competitiveness, in order for the Global Economic Death Spiral to be halted. Business, in its traditional model, is intrinsically ill-suited for the responsibility of civil government; so too is government, in its traditional model, ill-suited for ensuring the economic prosperity of the masses; especially when governments no longer hold the reigns of power within the global economy. An election has happened, the reigns of power have been passed, and most have missed the event completely. I’m not referring to the recent US Presidential election, but instead to a fundamental alteration in the way that economies are regulated. The perpetrators of this revolution, motivated by the baser instincts of greed, have failed to see the consequences, and responsibility, of their success. The top-hatted capitalists continue to fiddle while Rome burns.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's a Good Day


It’s a good day. Monday. MLK Day. I’ve been displeased with that abbreviation: MLK. It seems too brief, incomplete, doesn’t reflect the complexity and accomplishment of the man. I also have confused feelings about the name (not the man, having never met him, but admit that I relate little to his movement.) But the name: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., emblazoned in white reflective letters on a green background, overhangs the intersection, cantilevered from the light pole in a seemingly impossible feat of engineering, having replaced for years that venerable old Albuquerque street name of Grand Avenue. We’ve had to give up a bit of the grandeur, it would seem, in order to make a place for “MLK”. Perhaps the “good old days” weren’t as good as we think.

I used to work in a small mom & pop TV repair shop, located on a side street paralleling Grand Avenue, remembering giving phone instructions to customers on how to find the shop. “Take Grand east from I-25, then turn right on Maple and go up the hill.” The shop is no longer in business, Mom and Pop having moved on, and Grand Avenue is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the extra long sign flapping in the wind, reminding us of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go.


It’s a good day. Monday at Winning Coffee. The sidewalk seating is busy this afternoon, the tables and chairs scooted out away from the building to catch the balmy winter sun. That high pressure system over the eastern Pacific continues to provide the desert southwest with dry, unseasonably warm weather, just like it has inundated the north and east with frigid cold and snow. I’m a bit selfish, but would like this pattern to continue.

“Kerouac sells really well,” Bradley is telling a customer, “so I bring all I have.” The book business was slow in December, he informed me, “but January has been up and down, like folks can’t decide either way.” There are large, western-themed paintings hanging around the coffee shop, the one of the bison hangs crooked, like the mass of the weighty beast is throwing the balance off.

The corner bar that surrounds the coffee roasting machine is piled floor to counter with fruit and wine boxes filled with used books, the labels on the boxes at least as interesting as the books themselves. There’s one with the name Aerdrome Oranges, sporting a graphic of the massive dirigible USS Macon, on the mast adjacent to the giant airship hangar at Moffett Field, taken from a photograph that I recall seeing in one of my many books on lighter-than-air flight. These days the hangar once more supports LTA flight operations, this time being the Zeppelin NT airship Eureka, operated by Airship Ventures. I mention this to Bradley and he tells me that his wife knows the co-owner of Airship Ventures. It’s a small world. My wife has promised me a ride in the Eureka during our next vacation to the bay area.

The coffee machine behind Bradley gleams in its shiny metal fittings, the brass handles reminding me of the control levers and wheels one sees in old photos onboard the Graf Zeppelin. On paper the old Graf wasn’t nearly as capable or sophisticated as its younger sibling the Hindenburg. But the Graf had a spectacularly long and successful career, as German Zeppelins go. Oh, the humanity.


It’s a good day. Monday, the day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty fourth President of these Unites States. A lot seems to be riding on this coming event, the hopes and expectations of entire generations. Me, I’m hopefully expectant but also prudently cynical of anything good coming out of Washington, D.C. But I’m willing to be proven wrong, my cynicism forged through years of watching the political process unfold, like the slow, stinking rot of some boggy morass, the process measured by the periodic release of some surprisingly offensive new odor. I am reminded of the old adage “when you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s hard to remember that your original intention was to drain the swamp.” I hope and pray for Mr. Obama’s success, for his success is ours, too. But still, there’s them damned alligators.


It’s a good day. And so was yesterday. We had driven the Turquoise Trail to Madrid, NM, the trunk of the car loaded with tripod, Speed Graphic and sheet film holders loaded with paper negatives. The lens board is fashioned from Masonite, the lens being salvaged from an old 7x50 binocular. It’s this combination that I love to work with, the paper negatives providing a challenging yet manageable process, the improvised lenses (pinhole, plastic, salvaged or found) yielding surprisingly refreshing views.

While I was setting up to capture an image of a small grocery store, a young lad quietly observed me fiddling with the tripod and the bellows focus. I motioned him closer, and he intently stared at the view screen as I pointed out to him where I wanted the sharp focus point to be placed on the front row of fence pickets, then removed the lens to replace the waterhouse stop with a smaller aperture yielding a bit wider depth of focus. I adjusted the tripod a bit, refocused, then set the curtain shutter, inserted a film holder, pulled the dark slide, waited for the camera’s vibrations to settle out, and released the shutter. The boy walked on, back to his mother who was tending shop at a nearby gallery, perhaps wondering why the picture on that old guy’s camera was upside down. Heck, he probably doesn’t even know it’s broken.

The negatives developed fine later that day, though I had to wait upwards of eight minutes to get some to come out properly. It’s that ability to patiently wait, to not immediately assume the worst, which has improved my art. This is a lesson I must also apply to the new President and the prospects for the country’s future.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brush Strokes


Brush strokes. Where along the line did we get to the place where we despise brush strokes? I know of no art critic or curator who would devalue the Master’s brush-stroke-infused oil painting on the mere presence of the artist’s fingerprint upon his work, evidence that a lowly human being was at work upon the canvas rather than some mechanical automaton. In fact, thanks to the variety of aesthetic approaches to brush work we have movements of art, “isms”, a wide range of philosophies and styles and approaches to the mechanics of art making.

Brush strokes are indirect evidence that a human hand was at work upon a canvas, employing tools whose degree of finesse and control are simultaneously limited by the material’s crude imperfections, while displaying the artist’s ability to work within those limitations to achieve a surmounting mastery over the intrinsic materiality of substance.


The reading of the canvas entails a deep appreciation for the complex on-going dialog between the triumvirate of hand, brush and canvas that is The Way of the Artist. Peculiarly curious creatures are these artists, ever-exploring new dichotomies between the hard elements of the physical world and those fleeting, ephemeral qualities of the inner life. At the heart of this inquisitiveness is that timeless struggle between the artist’s inner vision and the stubborn resilience of physical materials to yield to the will of the artist’s intent. The nexus of this struggle is the place where art and craft are seamlessly interwoven so as to be inseparable.

So it is that we find the brush-stroke-infused canvas to be a monument of triumph over the hard, unsympathetic calculus of a deterministic universe, akin to the mud, blood and ooze of some far-distant battlefield, the texture of individual daubs of paint like the footprints of now-dead solders, evidence of some recently ceased struggle. We are reminded of Matthew Brady’s civil war photos; corpses carefully posed amidst the muck and aftermath of turmoil. We celebrate their crudity, the overly obvious presence of each orchestrated step in the long symphony of movements required for the completion of the work. The brush stroke reminds us that we must never forget this struggle as being essential to the process of art making.


Perhaps therein do we find reason for the critical disdain of artists such as Thomas Kinkade, whose style is commonly referred to as mere kitsch. While one could presume that the nature of the criticism leveled against Mr. Kinkade has more to do with professional jealousy over an obvious level of commercial success, there is some merit in the argument that Kinkade’s work is too pretty, too pristine, to be awarded notice as serious art, for its general oeuvre lacks the evidence we desire that some triumphant struggle has been won in the work’s creation. His work has the appearance of mechanical ease, as if some button was pushed and out from the guts of a mysterious art-making factory spews forth one pretty cottage within the woods after another. It looks contrived, polished. Photoshopped.

If Kinkade’s brand represents the shopping mall approach to art, omnipresent but deserving to be ignored, like just another ghetto of urban sprawl, then the world of photography is surely in the grips of some gigantic struggle, as well. The software-controlled approach to Photography as Graphic Arts is Kinkadism to the n-th degree, revealing an utter disrespect for the human presence in art. Its ability to erase all flaws, blemishes, ill-executed compositions – even natural physical laws – represents a fundamental philosophical shift in the relationship between the artist as real human being – replete with flaws, working within the hard physical limitations of a material world – and the resulting work as evidence of that process unfolding. It is rather the triumph of the image as uber-pornography, every reminder of the imperfections of the real world carefully removed, photography as Hollywood fantasy movie, intended to shock and awe.


There remains an unsettlingly persistent tendency within the photography world to mimic the artifacts of antiquated historical processes: the organic randomness bordering the edge of a peel-apart Polaroid image, the soft blur and vignetting within the periphery of an ancient plate-camera image. Even the simple monochromatic elegance of a black and white reveals an unintended yet unavoidable reference to a previous age when capturing color images chemically was only a theoretical possibility. Yet such stylistic elements persist, even proliferate, through the aegis of software simulation, because humans remain desperate for evidence that the process of art making has meaning at a personal level deeply profound and moving; a persistent desire that art remain tactile, physical, grounded in the everyday world of our ordinary experience.


Personal confession time. I have been guilty of taking a hand-processed paper negative, exposed in a simplistic pinhole box camera, processed in a dingy, dust-laden darkroom in the corner of my garage, and Photoshopped the bejeezus out of it in order to remove spots, hairs, fibers, scratches, blemishes and all other evidence of the physical nature of the medium and process. As if I were ashamed of the means by which such images are created; utter nonsense given my access to photographic image making of every conceivable level of sophistication.

I hand process paper negatives from simple handcrafted cameras because I find the process rewarding at both the level of physical involvement with the materials and the aesthetic qualities of the resulting images. The means by which I share these results, often via online discussion forums, provide little assurance that things are as they appear, since manipulation is intrinsic to the nature of the image file. Suffice it to say that I strive to ensure that such images are as faithful to the darkroom print as I can achieve; yet there remains those nagging dust motes and imperfections that I embarrassingly clone-stamp away, like dirty laundry hidden from view.

I am now coming to the place of deciding that all such commonly perceived faults, whether they be surface imperfections or compositional, represent artifacts of the photographic image as a literal document of the unfolding process. Just as Garry Winogrand asserted that there are no rules of composition, no horizons that require re-alignment with the frame’s edge, so too are the peculiarities of composition and focus in my images literal evidence of a particular angle of view as seen from a defined vantage point in space by the camera. The photograph is that most tangible of data points within the Space-Time Continuum, including the dust specks, scratches and blemishes that serve as documentary evidence of the material condition of my process within the darkroom environment. They are evidence of feeble human attempts to struggle at overcoming fundamental physical limitations in the pursuit of art. They are my badge of courage, my medal of achievement. My brush strokes.