Technology Yin Yang

This is a story about the yin yang (not yin AND yang as most boorish Americans call it) of technology. Tech provides both vast opportunities to create and the equally vast power to destroy great craftsmanship. But first I must set the stage for this philosophical debate. It all started with Robert.

Robert is a quiet guy but thoughtful. He and I see each other now and then at parties and events because our wives belong to the same social club.

I had probably never had more than a two-minute conversation with Robert. Yet here we were at a party and he knows a lot about something I care about but know very little. Photography. Robert is a professional photographer. I, on the other hand, gave up even my minor amateur status when film died as the preferred medium for pictures. (I have a very nice Nikon I’d sell if anyone still wants to shoot film).

For a bit over two years I have limited myself to a point and shoot digital picture-taking devise that fits in my pocket. No changing lenses, no focusing, no worrying about the light. So I ask Robert, “What advice can you give to me about starting to get into digital photography?” This leads to the discussion about how digital has taken much of the craftsmanship out of photography. I will do my best to capture his points though I admit to you now I may not be doing justice to them or him.

He started with the technical and then moved on to the philosophical. Technically he tells me that digital cameras, and these are SLRs a professional would use, do not provide consistent shots the way film cameras do. Something in the technology of the camera or the software leads to different readings and pictures in identical lighting situations despite improvements in built-in light metering and other technological improvements. He spends far more time making adjustments than when he shot with comparable film cameras.

That was the tip of the iceberg. His next point was that looking at the small screen on the back of the camera was the wrong way to visualize a great photo opportunity. The artist/photographer should be looking directly at the subject checking the nuances of the lighting, the composition, the shapes, the colors, the shadows.

Additionally from a commercial side says Robert,  having sooo many pictures available to download devalues all pictures. Users no longer discern between the great and the not-so-great. Will this phenomena dishearten the skilled craftsman who can no longer make a living at his craft? According to Robert, the photographers that survive and thrive are the better business people not the better shooters.

As I was listening to his point of view I began to wonder if this is true for writers as well. Bogging, tweeting and Facebook posting has opened the door for written expression to millions who would never have done it or at least never had shared it. For every 100 no talent blogs there is the special one by someone with so much to say and that beautiful way of telling a story.

Yet has this hurt the truly great writer starting out. Can very many writers make a living at their craft. Do people take the time to create things longer than a post? Will the art of short stories, novellas, novels and well written nonfiction disappear, the light blocked out by the shadows from a million free three paragraph posts?

Only time will tell whether all of this technology brings greater creative force and beauty or just more stuff. Or maybe both. Yin Yang.

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Chicago At Its Best

Despite the long, cold winter and the short rainy spring Chicago can be a phenomenal place to be be. Yesterday was just such a time.

It had been raining for sooo many days that I had just ordered my do-it-yourself arc building kit. (You never can be too careful.) But Saturday the sun was shining and it was warmer than expected. I awoke, stood outside for a moment and knew that I needed to be on my bike. I rode a muscle straining 30 miles and while the air was cool the warm of the sun made for a lovely ride. (Yes I used the word lovely. I may be a guy but I know lovely when I see it and am not afraid to say so.)

A short nap while waiting for my wife to come home brought me back to life and we headed into the City. It was the opening of the new wing of the Art Institute. But in Chicago, such an event is not some stuffy museum opening for the well to do, art snob crowd but an opportunity for all the City’s people to party.

It helps to know the geography of the area in order to grasp how expansive this moment was. From a north-south perspective the Art Institute is smack dab in the middle of the city. It is, however on the far east side of downtown specifically on the east side of Michigan avenue. On the west side of the street there are office buildings and retail establishments but on the east side is pure entertainment.

Immediately east of the museum is Grant Park and to the east of Grant Park is The Lake. This section of Grant Park houses a band shell that until recently was the centerpiece for all major festivals, several concerts and The Taste Of Chicago. It is the home of Buckingham Fountain and a beautiful rose garden.

But because that was not enough free and special space for the City of Chicago, another park was built immediately north of the Art Institute. This is Millennium Park. Whether or not it is financially worth the hundreds of millions put into it, aesthetically it is worth every cent. It is a place for people of every race, religion, social and economic status as well as every tonsorial and clothing affinity. More on Millennium Park in another post.

While normally The Art Institute and the two great parks on its borders are separated by streets, on this day the street were closed to traffic so it became one big stage for a Chicago day. We met my wife’s former college roommate, my friend, and regular Art Institute goer in Millennium Park. She had been there for the formal opening at 10 am and had just been enjoying the day. 

Admission was free today and the retail giant Target was hosting the opening. Outside the entrance they sponsered a stage that featured dance and music during the day. Target was providing snacks and bottled water. We started by touring part of the new wing. The stage had Jewish Klezmer music when we entered the museum and gospel music as we came out.

The new wing is great space to enjoy art. Now I am not knowledgeable about art or its history but I can appreciate it. This was open space where you could get very close to the paintings and sculptures. The sections meandered from once to the other. There are manny great works by many great artists. And yet as wonderful as the art was, the sunshine called us outside. In this new wing there was a rooftop area to eat, to sit, to be.

From there we went back out to the stage and caught the last part of the gospel choir. As we absorbed the high energy and spirituality of the music, a typical Chicago festival moment spontaneously combusted. Several rows back from the stage an African American couple were dancing some lively, intricate steps. Just as they stopped a middle aged, overweight white guy asked them to teach him the step. They did. An young, Asian guy jumped into the line on the other side of the couple and before you know it two more people joined in and the line danced until the music stopped. Hugs and handshakes all around.

The color and sex of the participants was irrelevant at that moment in time. I only mention them because you need to know in order to understand how much that race and sex did not matter. These were just people in the same place at the same time having a whole lot of fun.

We spent the next hour or so in Millennium Park enjoying ice cream and people watching. I love people watching. The older man in the kilt and the ugly sweater talking to anyone and everyone. Couple of all ages strolling through the park. Many stopping to enjoy the tulips. Taking pictures. The man trying to get his infant to walk to her mom, holding at first just her hands and then giving up, going with the flow and carrying the girl to where her mom was waiting to scoop her up in her arms. The woman with the tiara surrounded by friends (birthday, engagement or oddly likes to wear tiaras in public–your guess.)

I reget not having a camera. The sights and sounds were too numerous to write down. I have shared but a small sample.

Snow, what snow. We have short memories once the sun comes out to play.

This is why we live in Chicago.

Art and Science

Good news/Bad news from NPR’s Morning Addition Monday morning.  The good news.  Two thought provoking ideas ideas were offered, one about not blindly accepting accepted scientific concepts and the other on the artist’s role in science. The bad news. In order to hear these two ideas I had to withstand 7 minutes and 40 seconds of drivel disguised as a creative radio bit.  30 seconds would have been enough. First let’s discuss these ideas and then I will critique the bit.

Robert Krulwich‘s report was titled Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter… and Umami. The background. Several thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Democritus took up the question of how many tastes can a person taste. He postulated four; sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Once he marketed the idea to Aristotle and Plato and signed them as celebrity spokespersons all the Greeks were sold as were scientists for the next several thousand years. It became known became a scientific “fact” that everything we taste is some combination of those four ingredients.

No doubters until Auguste Escoffier said “Il n’est pas tellement”.  It is not so. Was Auguste a renown scientist? Doctor? Non! He was a chef. In fact in the late 1800’s he was thechef in France. He invented veal stock which according to the two knuckle heads on the radio (sorry, I could not completely wait until later to critique) was the most divine taste yet and was not a combination of the 4 accepted tastes. Sacre bleau!

Long story short a Japanese chemist had a similar thought. He discovered that this fifth taste was glutamate, particularly L-glutamate. It took another 100 years for scientists to take apart some taste buds and verify this fifth taste receptor. The taste was called umami in honor of the chemist.

So point number one. It is good to challenge common beliefs now and again. Even science can be wrong. However, in this day of religious nuttiness I prefer challenges with some appropriate support. Not just I said so. Point number two. Non-scientists, especially people with artistic capabilities often “see” reality before the scientists. Hopefully the scientists are listening. ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’ by Jonah Lehrer has more examples of artisans’ contributions to science. This idea of questioning the status quo when you have reason to believe differently is very intriguing to me. As is the concept that we should listen to and debate rather than simply dismiss alternate ideas.

OK I timed this. 1 minute 17 seconds to read this post so far.and I am a slow reader. I just saved you 6 minutes and 23 seconds of your life. Not to mention the quality of the time. It is hard to describe how pitifully Krulwich and Lehrer tried to create a theatre of the mind while dragging out this story. If you have the time to waste you can listen to it hear. When they start doing the cooking sounds as they tell Auguste’s part of the story just remember. I told you so.