Fish flops

I’m traveling, I’m in Amsterdam at the hotel, so not a lot of time to post my thoughts… but here’s something to add to my Channukah wish-list:

Finally back home in Berlin!

Back in Berlin! Now, time to remember that the Z and the Y are not where you expect them.

Smooth flight – all three boys slept, and JFK was not back-logged as usual. Gate-checked the stroller, but of course the Germans don’t understand the concept of giving parents their wheelsets right away, rather than waiting until after the luggage is unloaded. So everyone was forced to stand and hold cranky half-sleeping children while the suitcases roll past.

And the German obsession with cart theft… even the high-end supermarkets here insist you insert a Euro – God forbid life be made easier for the customer – a Mitarbeiter might have to actually leave the upholstered high-seat.

A shallow DOF image I took of the carts at Tegel a few years ago, before I had three kids to add to my luggage count:

Women are Heroes

I’ve never really been a fan of grafitti, even as a teenager it struck me as primitive. I understood that certain elements were tribal, that it was a way of letting everyone know exactly who’s ‘Hood they were in, but it also had something desperate about it. “Tagging” was somehow canine, a dog marking his favorite route.

But Street Art is a slightly different thing – it is usually less destructive and less scattershot. I guess you could also consider it Environmental Art, in the sense that it gets placed into our everyday surroundings.

But what I really like about Street Art is that it eschews the usual cycle of mega gallerists, celebrity artists and big money collectors. Simply put: you can’t really own street art.

One project I really admire is called Women Are Heroes. It’s done by a 25 year-old artist who goes by JR. He photographs women across the world, in this case in countries like Sudan, Sierra Leone, but also Cambodia and Laos, as well as Brazil. Then he prints extreme enlargements of the images, and wallpapers the sides of buildings in the neighborhoods of the women he documents… but then also posts them in a very large format in Western cities.

As the site explains:

The Women project wants to underline thier pivotal role and to highlight their dignity by shooting them in their daily lives and posting them on the walls of their country.

On the other hand, by posting the same images of these women in Western countries, the project allows everyone to feel concerned by their condition and connect through art, the two different worlds.

Check these out:

…and here’s one in Brussels…

These images are all from a favela in over Rio called Providencia. Check out JR’s site to learn more. Really impressive work.

Back in New York for a week

Phew, packed up L.A. and made it to N.Y. Easy flight, all three boys were great.

Here’s an old picture looking into the building canyons of our neighborhood. It was shot with a little novelty lens called a LensBaby – it’s a little bellows system that you bend with your hand while focusing the shot.

The image depicts quintessential New York summer – hot, muggy, and the air carries up the smells from the street – flowers, sweat, exhaust, garbage and perfume, all mixed together. You can hear cars honking, kids yelling, dogs barking, and a siren in the distance.

I love seeing all the rooftop gardens, they are wonderful personal retreats from the City.

I’m taking the boys to the Natural History Musem tomorrow, they like to see the whales on the ceiling of the ocean section, and the toothy deep-sea fish with their bioluminescent lures.

Fixed Gear

I love bicycles. Ever since I’ve been a kid I’ve had a huge crush on bikes – the cogs, the pedals, the wheels… the sheer technology mixed with simple elegance. I learned to ride early, and spent my semi-suburban youth riding around the neighborhood. For a while, I even tried to fix the neighbors’ bikes for a small fee. Now that I’m back in Berlin, I ride a lot more than I did when I lived in Los Angeles. In LA, car drivers barely notice each other, never mind bicyclists, and there are no bike paths… heck, there’s barely any sidewalks.

Fortunately Berlin is nice and flat, and drivers are trained to keep an eye out for people on bikes. I have two bikes so far – the American mountain bike I’ve had for the last seven years, and a really fast German road bike I bought last spring. The mountain bike is great for shredding through the Grunewald, a forest that starts a few blocks from my house, whereas the road bike is a sleek bicycle that gets me upt to 35 Km/h on fast roads leading out of town. Both provide great exercise, fresh air, and that unique rush of fast transportation.

Both bikes are at the peak of their technology. They feature 24 gears, fast consistent brakes, and light-weight frames. But truth be told, it takes a good amount of concentration – get the right gear, shift down before coming to a stop light, keep the traction on while speeding down a hill, and cover the brakes while entering an intersection… it’s definitely a mental challenge to ride through the city at peak performance, especially the constant shifting to maintain optimum stride.

But there’s a movement out there that is growing every year, and I’m about to join it. This group of bicyclists is committed to the purity of riding a bike – just the joy of fast motion – no over-thinking of gears, brakes, and position – just the the thrill of the ride.

It’s called Fixed Gear riding.

Of course, like everything in life these days, there are communities online who take this stuff very seriously. Just go check out the forums at, the Fixed Gear Gallery,  or half the other links in my Obscura list.

So what’s the big deal? Pure riding, that’s what – no thinking about shifting, no derailleurs grinding in search of the right cog, no power lost on the downstroke. But the ultimate joy is breaking by kicking back. Just stomp on the pedal on the upstroke, and skid like a 12-year old on your old Hercules!

Hardcore Fixed Gear riders don’t have any brakes, they only rely on the back-kick, or the force of the legs slowing down the pedals below… that’s probably going to take a little courage from me in City traffic, and I’ll be installing a front brake initially. Most of the weight transfers to the front wheel upon deceleration, and it offers finer control until the back-kick has been mastered (again).

Let me parse this somewhat more finely: there are two kinds of bikes in this genre – Single Speed, and it’s more intense cousin Fixed Gear. There’s really only one difference, but it is a major point of contention: a Single Speed bike can spin the pedals backward, and coast along without the rider moving the legs. A Fixed Gear bike keeps the pedals moving – there’s no simple coasting, and no free back pedaling. It’s the way bikes used to be 50 or 100 years ago…and a little dangerous if you’re out of practice.

Luckily, you can have both. There are rear axles that can be locked relatively easily so that you’re either riding Fixed Gear, or release it for that simpler Single Speed cruise.

By the way, Fixed Gear riding is still an important part of bicycle racing and training. There’s a number of races that rely on this kind of set up. More importantly, serious bike riders use Fixed Gear bikes for practice. It allows you to build up your stamina, but it also does wonders for your technique. You end up with a much longer powerstroke, develop a smoother pace, and get a better work-out.

So I’m going to start hunting around for a nice Single Speed. I will probably assemble the parts myself, and build a nice and light bike for a frenzied run into the city. Best of all, it’s pretty inexpensive – the most costly parts are usually the cranks and derailleurs. After that, the two most expensive components are the frame and the wheels.

And after that… well, my bike obsession continues, but will probably wait till next year. K the Listmaker will hopefully get a bike now that she’s no longer pregnant, so we can go on family excursions. I am really in love with some of the Dutch bikes I see in Amsterdam all the time. So while she rides her bike, I will have to bring the rest of the tribe, so I’m hoping to get a Bakfiets. Room enough for the boys AND a picnic basket.


Some of you know that I’m an avid photographer, but fewer of you also realize that I’m an active photoblogger as well.

What’s that? A Photoblog (distinct from the sort of rambling self-involved “regular” blog you’re currently reading) is about expressing oneself photographically. Ideally, a photoblogger posts an image regularly, and creates some kind of running narrative. These blogs are much more about the image than they are about written content. By internet standards we’re a relatively small community. it lists about 31,000 members, though I have the suspicion that many are less active and not particularly regular in their posting schedule.

There are photobloggers who keep a beautiful diary of their personal life. I’ve always marveled at what Alison Garnett shows at Hello – My La La Land. It always pops up a guilty reminder to go out and take more pictures of the kids. Look for the tiny pink arrow at the top to navigate through the images.

Many photobloggers are more dogmatic in their approach, and will only post one type of image. Travis Ruse of Express Train takes one picture a day on his subway commute to work. Click on the picture to see the one from the day before. Diane Varner lives in beautiful Northern California, as far from NYC as possible, and her Daily Walks photoblog is a beautiful compendium of what she finds on the other end of her lens.

But most of us simply use it as an online gallery to show what we’re working on, and to stay in touch with fellow members of the photoblogging community. You can see my work over at The Western Flatline, and if you go to the Links & About section you will find links to the sites of photobloggers I admire, or that I’ve become friends with.

Every year,  some of us meet up on the various continents, giving us a chance to spend some time in “meat space” or Real Life – rather than just on various online forums. There’s an annual meet-up in the US, one in Asia, and one in Europe. Last year the European Photoblogger’s Meet-Up was in Berlin, and I ended up being the local host. It was great fun! There’s something really rewarding about spending a long weekend with people who completely understand if you just want to stop and spend a few minutes “getting the shot.” Usually, our friends and loved ones have three comments:

“It’s nice.”– the dagger-in-heart well-intentioned-but-blank comment, familiar to anyone who’s ever tried anything creative…

“You’re gonna center that, right?” – for those shots where the subject is not in the middle, or possibly not entirely sharp, or somehow desaturated… a creative choice was made, but not understood…

“Wow, nice shot, you must have a great camera…” – it’s like telling the cook “Mmmm, yummy food, you must have great pots…”

None of these are confidence inspiring, and they certainly don’t end up in night-long conversations about composition, intent, and the decisive moment. So spending a weekend with fellow photobloggers is one of the great treats in life.

Alfonso and Fran, two photobloggers from Barcelona and 2008’s European Photoblogger Meet-Up hosts, put together a video for our 2007 Meet-Up in Berlin. You see a lot of our photography, and some pictures of our group.

Take a look, it’s a nice effort.

America and Europe: Vive la différence!

This blog is really just for my family and my friends. That means I’m not doing this to become a recognized public voice in the blogosphere, and not everything I post here is of great philosophical value. Sometimes I find I have something to say about society, but other times I found a funny image, a quick joke, or something obscure that delights my geeky heart. I will occasionally steal content outright, because I want all of you to see and read the things I’m finding on the internet.

What follows is a good example:

The article is by Josef Joffe, a long-time family friend. And I mean looooong time… my father and his father were business partners in the early 1960s. Joe is German, he’s Jewish, and he spends half his time in the United States – just like me. In his case he works as a professor at Stanford. The rest of the time he is the editor and publisher of Die Zeit, Germany’s premier newspaper for people who actually read. Joe’s also on the board of the American Academy in Berlin, where both Karen and I are helping out with business issues or technology questions as Senior Counselors.

Joe Joffe has written an opinion piece for the International Herald-Tribune, and it sums up nicely several differences between Europe and the United States. It doesn’t cover all of them, but it goes a long way toward answering a question that Karen and I hear a lot: “which is better?”

So rather than just linking to it, I’m simply cutting-and-pasting it here. Call me names if you will (“Content Thief!”) but I know half my readers (that’s you, my friends) have the attention span of gnats, and wouldn’t click through to it. The ones in the US work too hard to have time to read something simply for pure pleasure…

America and Europe: Vive la différence!
Sunday, August 31, 2008, IHT

It’s decline time again in America, like every 20 years or so.

Last time round, in 1988, the doomsayers got everything right – except the name of the country. For it was the Soviet Union which collapsed while the United States went on to savor its “unipolar moment.” This time it is a consumptive greenback, shrinking credit, soaring gas and two wars with no V-Day in sight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now let’s look across the Atlantic where Europe used to strike Americans as one huge Disneyland with real castles and wondrous shopping arcades, like H&M (for the kids) and Hermès (for the Kerrys).

Today, the Manolo is on the other foot, or, more apropos, in the other shopping bag. Over the last eight years, the euro has almost doubled in value against the dollar. It used to be the Japanese who bought Fifth Avenue dry; now it is those Euro hordes and even Russians! They even come to buy their own stuff – Prada, Zara, whateva – which usually costs a lot more in Milan than in Manhattan.

So what do the Europeans have the Americans don’t? Above all, more time. At home, Barack Obama could never pull in 200,000 as he did in Berlin in July.

Does that mean Berliners are a soft touch for soaring platitudes? Hardly. Like all big-city folks, they are snotty seen-it-all types. But they have lots of free time on their hands. Unemployment in the German capital runs to 14 percent, about twice the national rate. Like most West Europeans, Germans enjoy much more R-and-R than Americans, who work 400 hours (10 weeks!) more per year.

These Calvinist work habits (which have infected American Catholics and Jews as well) mark the basic difference between America and Europe. When Americans come to Europe – heck, when Europeans come to Europe, as I did on my Italian vacation that took me from coldish, Lutheran Hamburg to Todi and Perugia – we all fall for the same wondrous thing: tasteful leisure.

Leisure has disappeared in America. Americans don’t just hang out any more; we “network.” When they go to the ball game, it is for “quality time” with the kids, not for the bliss of a lazy afternoon. Work and non-work have become a single seamless thing in 21st century America.

This is why we, Europeans as well as Americans, love sitting in a café on Perugia’s Via Mazzini. The pizza is richer at Domino’s and the lettuce is crisper at Denny’s, but we happily drop two hundred bucks for a so-so meal for six. Why? Because we can stay and stay; no waiter will accost us with that atrocious question: “Are you still working on your carbonara?” Food as work – this is just one step short of the end of Western civilization.

Bella Italia, bella Europa – chock full of Peruginos and Massacchios, Dürers and Matisses, where the Barolo practically comes out of the faucet, where the women dress to kill even for a date with the copy machine. Dallmayr and E.A.T. will drive you into Chapter 11, but the starch-apron ladies in the Munich fancy-food store just pull off the heist more suavely than their co-conspirators on Madison Avenue.

There is that endless diversity stretching from Lisbon to Lodz – the food, the architecture, the history. And the high-speed trains that cover the 180 miles between Hamburg and Berlin in 90 minutes. And the Metros, autobahns and buses – all immaculate.

So why isn’t everybody hyping Europe, like they are rhapsodizing about China and India as new masters of the universe?

It’s the economy, stupid. Europe’s has practically ground to a halt, with Germany’s actually contracting. No, it’s not 7 or 10 percent eternal growth for Euroland, as it is for “Chindia.” And this is no accident, comrades, as the Soviets used to say. Europe’s life-style is to America’s like slow food is to McDonald’s. It’s a two-hour lunch versus pay, gulp and back to work.

Europe has chosen gemütlichkeit; America wants to re-invent itself once a month. “Which is better?” is like asking, “Is it warmer in the summer or in the city?” Though Europe and the U.S. share so much of modernity – from burgers to baseball caps, from soaring divorce rates to spreading ghettos – they have written very different “social contracts” for themselves.

The European contract favors stability and disfavors change; it prefers egalitarian outcomes to untrammeled opportunity. Hence the stark difference in public spending. In the EU, the government grabs about one-half of GDP, in the U.S. it is only 37 percent (which also pays for two wars these days).

So, the state taketh, and the state giveth, which creates a vicious but cozy circle. High levies and dense regulations brake growth and kill jobs, but high welfare, financed by rising payroll taxes, make life on the dole quite tolerable.

Universities boast open admission and no tuition, but not a single German university has made the World’s Top Fifty compiled by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University. Thirty-five of them are American, as are eight of the Top Ten.

Protecting its industrial past, Europe perfects old technologies; hence the Mercs, the first-rate medical and tool-making machinery, not to speak of the perfume, the haute couture and the haute chocolate. But it is in America where the kid from Russia goes to invent Google. It is also in the U.S. where my best students at Stanford have names like Kim and Zhou. The “new new thing” will surely be Made in U.S.A.

America is invention, Europe is perfection. America is a house built from drywall and two-by-fours; Europe is massive stone piled up for eternity, like our friend’s borgo in Todi, whose origins date back to Etruscan times.

You can knock down the flimsy drywall and build a new house to suit your new needs. Or just leave for a new life, as Americans have done since they ran from Ireland or the Pale. But your castle is forever.

Like economics, like politics. Outside of Britain, proportional representation is the rule. The result is the same everywhere: no clear majorities, hence multi-party coalitions. Such governments are balance-of-power systems that generate stalemate.

There is neither a Reagan nor a Thatcher in Continental Europe’s past, and there won’t be in the future. It’s just Berlusconi following Prodi following Berlusconi. Please spare us the surprises, is the silent prayer of Europe’s electorates. And “no power to nobody,” is the hidden imperative.

“No power” also means no forays abroad for booty, duty or glory. Europe, the locus of every significant war since the Greeks wiped out Troy, has become as aggressive as a sloth. And why not? 300,000 American troops protected it during the Cold War, and even today there are 70,000 strewn across the Continent as a nice reinsurance policy.

Call it self-indulgent if you must. But for a European who remembers his continent’s self-destruction in two world wars, a “look ma, no arms” policy looks quite rational. As long as the U.S. takes care of the world’s nasty business.

So is it warmer in the summer or in the city? Why not both? The summer is Europe: gemütlich, warm and reassuring. The city is America: speed and chance, sound and fury, novelty and reinvention.

The article at the International Herald Tribune can be found here.

Burning Man

Well, I’m back from Burning Man.

First, a primer for those of you who haven’t been:

Burning Man is an experience in communal living. For two weeks every year, a complete city arises in the desert, and then completely disappears, leaving no trace.

It’s a modern-day post-cyberpunk Mad Max quasi-hippy Love Parade experience. For about a week or two, people gather in the desert – a dried alkali lake in Black Rock, Nevada, and celebrate an independent life-style. It’s been held in earnest since about 1990, and in the last few years it consistently draws about 40,000 people in the course of the event. Everyone who comes must be entirely self-sufficient. You need to bring your food, water, shelter, clothes, and anything else you might want or need. No money is allowed, everything must be traded or gifted. People come in elaborate tents, motor homes, and other temporary structures.

And you need a bike, because the place is huge. It’s several square miles!

Now, keep in mind this is the desert. It is a 100 degrees in the day, and at night it drops down to 50, and sand storms whip up regularly, but without notice. It is harsh! It’s also far away from anything – about three hours from Reno. And it’s pretty expensive – $300 to get in, plus at least $100 or more per day in supplies – and most spend a LOT more. All of this means that the crowd is pretty grown up. The typical age bracket is 30 – 35 years old, but it goes way up in age. Also, the cost means there’s few voyeurs – if you’re going to spend a day getting there, you’re not just there to gawk at the naked people… you’re gonna be there a while, and you’re gonna have to get into the spirit of things.

Burning Man is a temporary city – actually, the second largest town in Nevada during Labor Day weekend. It’s perfectly circular, and in the middle is a vast expanse known as the playa – and in the middle of this playa is a 60-foot high wooden sculpture of a “man”… and on the last Saturday night, it gets burned to the ground.

The vibe is a tribal-peaceful-happy-“don’t fuck with me”-dayglo-leftist-anarchy mixture, liberally sprinkled with hash and hallucinogens. And a lot of loud trance music.

But that really tells you nothing.  You have to see it to believe it.

…and I have to admit, I thought it was wonderful.

I would tell you about all unbelievable mobile art – giant pieces that drive around in the desert, larger than two buses. I would tell you about all the weird performances, and all the fire. I would describe to you the music, the dancers, and everyone’s costumes. And then I would tell you that everything gets an order of magnitude weirder after dark.

…but my story wouldn’t really begin to do it justice. And as much as I consider myself a good photographer, I came away with very few good pictures. I was too busy experiencing everything to take any decent ones.

So in the spirit of sharing at Burning Man, I will take other’s images and videos, and link to them here.

And when you’re done watching these, go to YouTube and search for Burning Man. Or do the same thing on Google Images. Have fun.

See you there soon, I hope.