Brick By Brick

The Wall Came Down 25 Years
Ago But Others Remain Defiant

It was a typical public jubilation moment: thousands of happy people, front cover news around the world, an event of political resonance (and appropriation too) and catharsis like few. It happened a generation ago: on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall finally came down.
But just as other similar, long overdue moments have been before it and since, when the symbolic end of the Cold War arrived, it was swift, pregnant with hope, and just as quickly, deeply dissatisfying. A quarter of a century later, we’re bound to question even its relevance.
It didn’t even end the détente, that unbearably nervous post-war time between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that for years paralyzed the world with fear. We now can see it for what it was: just a pro-forma liberation hour, coming late to rubber-stamp its own obsolescence.
But it was a jubilation all the same. Those who endured 28 years of that cruel scar, splitting heart and country in the middle, surely deserved to celebrate it all with gusto. Before long, however, it all wound up in a museum.
Sunday will culminate a week long commemoration, and images of mostly young people climbing crumbling logs of concrete, and a few survivor old timers too, crying like happy babies, will make the headlines. Not as breaking news, though; but as a cultural landmark.
We’ll take it anyway, of course. Times have been hard on reasons to be cheerful, and saturated with the kind of heartbreak that built the wall in the first place. So, heaven forbid if we let such an occasion to be merry pass, and, by all means, let’s have a worldwide party.

KEEPING THEM PEOPLE OUTSIDE
For 20th century standards, the fall of the Berlin Wall was an unbeatable icon of optimism and hope in the future. Some would argue that bottled down anger Continue reading

The Blunder Games

When Olympic Ideals Boil Down
to Saving Dogs From Being Killed

There hasn’t been any shortage of despicable reasons to abhor the Olympic Winter Games starting today in Sochi, Russia, but its Organizing Committee has managed to win the prize for the cruelest of them all: it ordered a hunt to kill the city’s stray dog population.
And it’s one bid that may’ve been actually completed by the eve of the opening ceremony, unlike the athletes’ village and the visitors’ transportation hub, both still under construction, and running and potable water at some of the press corps’ hotel accommodations.
Add to that too a hostile climate towards gay and basic civil rights, appalling conditions faced by laborers, many still unpaid and some already deported, and a general menace lurking about the games, after countless threats of terrorism made by Vladimir Putin’s political opponents.
This Olympics were to be his crowning achievement after 12 years of unquestionable power over everything big and small in the Russian society. It’s shaping up to be, however, a gigantic blunder that has cost billions of dollars, even if so far, not many (human) lives. Let’s hope that it keeps that way.
Everything about this exercise of self-aggrandizing has gone counter Putin’s ambitions, and one would expect, may serve to undermine his steel grip over Russia. It wouldn’t be a bad result for such arrogant enterprise, if that actually happens. History, though, usually proves us wrong.

THE RACE IS ON
To be sure, the problem of stray dogs in big metropolis around the world is not a monopoly of Russia, even when considering those in the streets of Moscow, for example, legendary urban features. Not long ago, bankrupted Detroit had to face a similar problem, with thousands of dogs wondering its neighborhoods.
There, animal organizations, mostly non-profit, plus a sympathetic population have come to the rescue, and many famished canines have found homes and suitable shelters, according to reports. But the problem persists, as efforts to educate people about sterilization and other measures take time until producing palpable results.
Elsewhere, in cities like Rome, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, passionate debates about what to do with strays and feral cats and dogs continue Continue reading

Album Art

When Covers Rocked
As Hard as the Music

There has been many a requiem for the vinyl album. After a post-war apogee of the thick 78s, the 33 and 1/3r.p.m. record reigned supreme for 30 years. But its demise was swift, vanquished by the CD, which like replicants of the era, wasn’t built to last.
During its glory, though, it was a perfect conduit for the music that engraved hearts and minds of three generations. While the sound outlast formats, the albums’ art covers were the signposts pointing to the narrative of changes that their songs were about.
The names of the artists who created the jackets and sleeves of the soundtracks of the 1950s, 60s and beyond never became nearly as familiar as the superstars who came to dominate the age. Nevertheless, some of the work has arguably surpassed the content they were supposed to illustrate and complement.
Peter Blake, Alan Aldridge, Roger Dean, H.R. Giger, the recently deceased Storm Thorgerson, along with already established artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Crumb, were some of the outstanding creators of seminal works of contemporary art, for the packaging of pop hits they were designed for. That art, unfortunately, is no longer around.
Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Nirvana, Yes and Led Zeppelin, along with some notable jazz labels such as the Blue Note, have all benefited from the explosion of the art of album cover, and some of the era’s greatest hits are forever linked with the images that graced their albums. Some were controversial, but most were deeply inspiring.

END OF THE STANDALONE RECORD
Their downfall may have started with that shortest-lived of the formats, the Compact Disc, which arguably cut down on the space for art on the cover. When it went the way of the cassette tape, which it’s also buried, Continue reading

Spinning Wheels

Baby, You Can’t Drive
My Car. Nor Should You

Well, it was a good run. From its late 1600s invention to its 20th century mass production, the car enjoyed a fast, risky, and racy love affair with people. But alas, it may be over. And the signs of a probable popularity crash are coming from some quite unexpected places.
Mainly, its evolution. See, once we begin traveling in driverless, accident-proof, shape-shifting vehicles, what can possibly come next? The quicksand of moral considerations, of course. Or, rather bluntly, will your model choose to save your life or those in the school bus?

At the very least, that’s what we get when we aim at convenience: we’re so willing to trade our hands-on approach to driving with the exactitude of machines, that they may as well make decisions against our best interests. Meaning, save the kids, and dump you down the ravine.
With the vexing plus of such an artificial intelligence, now capable of safely handling a one-tone speeding vehicle among hundreds of others, not being even that intelligent. For the technology that allows a car to go from point A to point B is as old as that which built the pyramids. Just like pushing blocks onto a prefab grid.
We’re not trying to knock the brave new world of computer research, and the wonders of making such a complex piece of engineering to be able to relate to its environment so well. An evolutionary leap that, in less than a century, rendered the human factor nearly obsolete, as far as it’s moving parts are concerned.
And yes, thanks to those who came before, to Ferdinand Verbiest, to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, to Gustave Trouvé, and to Karl Benz, as well as to the man many Americans erroneously believe has invented the automobile: Henry Ford. We’ll give you a minute for you to check these names out.
Ford did leave an indelible imprint on this evolutionary arch, but Continue reading

Blah Blah Blah

Obscure, Banned, Untranslatable:
The Elusive Power of Stray Words

Today is May Day, and there’s a word for this sort of sentence construction. Unfortunately, we can’t remember it. So let’s skip it right along and find one of those epithets that librarians and philologists are trying to hunt down and kill.
While the New Yorker has sent a few to death row and the Department of Education put together a list of banned ones, BBC’s writer Will Self would rather praise the rarest and the precious. And here comes the always entertaining, albeit a bit pointless, exercise of singling out those that are supposed to be untranslatable. But we’ll see about that.
Fact is, our most distinctive quality, the ability to express thoughts and feelings in words, has been getting quite a mouthful lately. Apparently, there’s been some gross misuse of what we’ve been doing with our vocal chords, and it’s not only those librarians and philologists, along with their grandmas, who are saying it.
There are those who decry our increased use of abbreviations, which has more to do with the current ability of our communication gadgets Continue reading