Wednesday, May 18, 2011

America in Color 1930's & 1940's

In 2006, the Library of Congress held an exhibition called Bound for Glory: America in Color. It displayed color photos, many of them of striking quality, taken by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information. Not only are the pictures fascinating as history and satisfying as art, for those of us born in later decades they will help put to rest the nagging suspicion that the era was a poorly Photoshopped black-and-white hoax. These are real people, places, and things.

Check out a generous sampling of the photographs here, courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Madagascar" BBC and Animal Planet

David Attenborough is virtually synonymous with top-notch natural history documentaries. His ten part series beginning with Life on Earth set the standard for wildlife programming, and he has continued to surpass himself with recent series such as The Blue Planet, and Planet Earth. His most recently released miniseries, Madagascar, stands alone as one of his best. This 150 minute series aired in three parts on the BBC and is apparently airing in two two-hour specials on Animal Planet, although getting actual details of the broadcast schedule has been difficult. In any case, the first part aired on Animal Planet was simply stunning, and I recommend that you set your DVR or DVD or VHS to record the episode when it airs next. You can also purchase the show in DVD and HD Blue Ray at Amazon.

While one expects quality nature programming from Attenborough and the BBC, what makes this documentary exceptional is the subject matter, which is both fascinating and rarely filmed. Madagascar is unique given both its position, at the southern end of the inhabited world, and given that it is an island that has been separated from the African and Indian continents (between which it was sandwiched in the age of the dinosaurs) for some 60 million years.

Two groups of animals for which Madagascar is famous, the chameleons, and the Lemurs, which are unique to the island, feature prominently in the documentary. But the island abounds with unique reptiles, birds and amphibians.

And its mammals, like the elegant fossa, not a cat, but an oversized mongoose, and the spectral aye-aye, a primate version of the woodpecker (below), are unique.

Particularly fascinating is the yellow-and-black striped tenrec, which looks like a porcupine or a hedgehog, but which is actually more closely related the the elephant and the aardvark.

Never filmed before, this animal is not only protected by its detachable spines, it can also, by shrugging muscles on its shoulders, rub its quills together to produce a chirp in the manner of a cricket.

Even if you are familiar with lemurs and chameleons (have you seen the inchworm-sized dwarf chameleon, and the pygmy lemur, a relic of our oldest primate relatives?) this documentary will wow you with its colorful animals and fantasy landscapes. But dont take my word for it. Watch the trailer:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

As Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day

By Christopher Courtley

At a high point in the movie Star Trek Generations, the character Doctor Tolian Soran, played by Malcolm McDowell, declaims that "time is the fire in which we burn". Even though that film was mostly forgettable, that one phrase stuck with me for a long time, until one day I discovered that it was a quote from a poem by an obscure New York poet who deserves to be remembered. The line in question comes from the poem "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz of Brooklyn.

Here is an excerpt:

Calmly we walk through this April's day,
Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away,
Between the worker and the millionaire
Number provides all distances,
It is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
Many great dears are taken away,
What will become of you and me
(This is the school in which we learn...)
Besides the photo and the memory?
(...that time is the fire in which we burn.)

The poem, the full text of which can be found here, expresses the poet's observation of how we blithely and obliquely go about our lives in the shadow of the knowledge that everything ends, even in spring, as all life around us blooms, similarly heedless of the presence of the cold spectre of death. In this way it reminds me of the great Austrian composer Franz Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen.

It seems oddly fitting that the man who wrote this powerful and haunting poem has given his name to a phenomenon known as the Delmore Effect, which "is the tendency of most people to set much more explicit goals for low priority domains than for their most important ambitions." The reason he was given the dubious distinction of having this tendency named after him is cited by an editorial in the University of Chicago press as being "that an extended essay or book on Joyce was one of [his] long entertained projects and that he never accomplished the project precisely because he thought of it as crucial."

Delmore Schwartz is such a good poet and also such an obscure one, that I am seriously considering adopting him at In the meantime I will do my part to reduce his obscurity in other ways, however small. With that in mind, here is a simple still-image video I've created and uploaded to YouTube of myself reading one of Schwartz' last and greatest poems:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who has died and made me God?

What resources do I bring
To the choice of everything?
Is there magic in my ring?
Who has died and made me king?
Overtaught and underawed -
Where's the carrot? Where the rod?
Nothing's given, or outlawed.
Who has died and made me God?
On whose shoulders do I stand?
Who is reaching for my hand?
Am I armoured, or unmanned,
As I walk the wonderland?