Archive for December, 2009

Explosion: Population Follows Food Production

December 30th, 2009

As the world moved into the 20th century – populations growing and food sources being strained – there was a growing concern about a 100-year-old idea known as the Malthusian catastrope. Thomas Malthus’ theory recognized, basically, that there are a fixed amount of resources available on Earth, and that, sooner or later, the human population is going to exceed a level that those resources can comfortably support.

…misery is the check that represses the
superior power of population and keeps its effects equal to the means
of subsistence.

- T.R. Malthus from An Essay on the Principle of Population

One of the big hurdles preventing an increase in food production has to do with nitrogen - an elemental building block in the growth of plants. While nitrogen is plentiful in our atmosphere, it must be “fixed” by first converting it into ammonia and then oxidizing it in order for plants to be able to use it. Back in the day, the only practical way known to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere was to plant legumes (beans, peas, and the like) and let a natural symbiotic bacterial process unique to these plants produce fixed nitrogen in the surrounding soil. To keep their fields enriched, farmers had to alternate crops from year to year between legumes and whatever other more profitable or bountiful plant that they wanted to grow. Farmers were also forced to keep and feed animals to further fertilize the fields. All of these limitations kept a cap on the amount of food that could be grown for human consumption.

Enter Fritz Haber, a German Jewish chemist who perfected a process in 1909 to artificially fix Nitrogen using a whole lot of heat, pressure, and a catalyst. After commercializing his process with the help of Carl Bosch and BASF, the world finally had a plentiful source of fertilizer that was limited only by the availability of energy (fossil fuels) and the gears of industry. Supposedly, two out of five people on Earth would not be able to feed themselves today if it weren’t for Haber’s invention.

So why isn’t Haber hailed as a modern day hero for ushering in an era of unprecedented human growth and productivity? Well, it just so happens that the other popular use for all that ammonia is as a chemical weapon. Haber soon went to work for the German military and oversaw the deployment of poison gas on the battlefield (ironically and horribly paving the way for the gassing of his own relatives in concentration camps during WWII). Despite the wartime uses for the Haber process, many of the factories that synthesized ammonia and nitrogen for gas and bombs during WWII were converted to produce fertilizer after the war. The yield from all these factories enabled the exponential population boom that began shortly thereafter.

I’ve been reading a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma that calls attention to Haber’s significant effect on food production. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of him, given all that he did to change food (a subject I am passionate about), so I wanted to do a little research. Anyways, the book is a really interesting read so far, and I recommend it to anyone that wonders how the modern state of food came about, and what we might want to think about as we continue our mass consumption into the future.

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Steve Martin: Expression of Comfort vs. Number of Children

December 28th, 2009

Steve Martin is obviously not comfortable unless supervising an extraordinarily large number of children. This assortment of box covers illustrates the trajectory of Martin’s moods through his various film roles.

No matter that he has two potential wives in Housesitter, Martin is anxious and worried in any sort of childless union. In Father of the Bride, he is still visibly perturbed with the knowledge that he has only managed to sire two children. He appears only slightly happier with the addition of a mere two new babies in Father of the Bride 2. Finally, having fathered six children and stolen six more from another man’s family in Cheaper by the Dozen, Martin is able to express some sort of satisfaction. He is even able to change out of his suit jacket and relax in a blue sweatshirt. So, where does that leave us?

I would say that we should all keep an eye out for Martin in a Nancy Meyers helmed biopic about the life and children of King Sobhuza of Swaziland, however, the part may be somewhat of the stretch for Martin, who may never be the obvious choice to play an African king. Will Martin ever find true satisfaction in the world of movies? Screenwriters take notice. You know what you have to do.

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Joseph Szabo TEENAGE

December 24th, 2009

I was in a used book store the other day here in Seattle and chanced upon a book locked up in the rare/collectible book case that looked too interesting to pass by. After fetching someone to unlock the case, I was treated to Joseph Szabo’s TEENAGE.

Szabo taught at Malverne High School on Long Island for more than twenty five years (from the early 70′s to the late 90′s) where he was able to take a number of remarkably candid photographs of teenage life (and hair). I’m so into these photographs that I’ve been wondering how I would be able to undertake a photo project like this without seeming like a total creep. Maybe I’ve missed my chance, and I’m now stuck documenting the lives of the over-30s.

Nevertheless, looking through these photographs has got me humming Sound Of Silver over and over while looking through my old yearbooks trying to remember what I’ve tried to forget. Clearly I’m not alone. The forward to TEENAGE was written by Cameron Crowe, and other auteurs — from Sofia Coppola to Terry Richardson — have drawn direct inspiration from the posturing, sexual yearning, and social exploration of the world that the collection depicts.

Check out the book (if you can find it) and be sure to take a moment to look through more great photos of this ilk on Szabo’s gallery’s site.

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Monochromatic shoes

December 17th, 2009


My new shoes are uniformly this one bright blue color; The color of painter’s masking tape. Putting on these bad boys makes me feel okay about my style even when everything else I’m wearing is black and grey.

Maybe you should try bright shoes this winter.

For inspiration, here’s some Matisse, Yves Klein/Ellsworth Kelly, and Rothko kicks as delivered by ALife+Reebok, Kitsune x Pierre Hardy, and Sneaky Steve. Any one of these would make me smile.


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LOLCats to get their own dictionary?

December 15th, 2009

Anil Dash, analyzer of contemporary culture, wrote a really great article a couple years back on his blog about LOLCats grammar that I recalled recently as I was introducing my girlfriend the classic If you, like my gardening girlfriend, aren’t up on your internet memes, LOLCats are those ubiquitous photos of kittehs looking pissed, riding invisible bikes, wearing fruit as hats, and describing it all in their own unique take on the English language.
Dash’s article introduced the idea that LOLCat-speak is actually a pidgin language on its way to becoming a creole. A creole is a stable language that originates from the combination of various other languages. One theory for how (or why) a creole might develop describes how a group of people will simplify their language to make it more understandable to a non-native speaker. Over time, this simplification is taken by the non-native speakers to be the legitimate version of the language. This theory, known as Foreigner Talk (or Baby Talk), seems easy to apply to the LOLCat dialect. One imagines the cats of the world digesting the way most people speak to them and spitting it back out as LOLCat — eventually resulting in the creole of English that they speak on da internetz. Its funny to project real-world linguistic theories onto Internet jokes, but it’s a useful model in helping one understand how languages develop in the real world. Check out this video of Anil describing his original article and the amusing effect it has had on his career.

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Artists, Musicians, and Noodlers sketch David Bowie

December 11th, 2009

bowie_adrian_tomineComic writer and David Bowie fan Sean T. Collins has been collecting sketches of the Thin White Duke from various pencils-about-town for the past few years. He has scanned in most of this collection on his Flickr page. The sketch above was contributed by Adrian Tomine - the man behind one of my favorite downer comic books, Optic Nerve. I like Adrian’s melancholy Bowie, but to say that it is my favorite puts down the imagination that the series exhibits. They’re all so different, and they really speak to the sense of mysterious otherness that David Bowie has managed to build around himself over his lengthy career.

I’m glad Sean undertook the project. It goes to show that we really are in a golden era of curators. It takes a driven cultural collector to set out on a sweet project like this one with a will strong enough to amass such a specific and impressive collection.

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