murder ballads


In my background research on folk music, and related to my interest in developing a ‘American Culture’ class that focuses on Massachusetts history and culture, I came across this fascinating article by Peter Drier on the Kingston Trio, and the song, ‘M.T.A.’ In my reading, I’ve been interested in the folk community’ crankiness about the Kingston Trio as too commercial and too apolitical: Their big hit was a murder ballad (‘Tom Dooley‘), a classic trope in folk music, which would be hard to pull off these days, by a ‘popular’ band, I imagine… Less related: I also had the not altogether novel realization of how in touch with American songwriting Kurt Cobain was. Nirvana’s ‘In the Pines,’ is a changeup of ‘Where did you sleep last night?’ which was sung by Leadbelly, and one of their bigger songs was ‘Polly,’ which is an adaptation of a traditional (which is perhaps a redundancy in terms) murder ballad, sung here by Dock Boggs.

the history of the corporation

101, culture

I love the documentary, The Corporation. Here‘s an interesting economics lesson on the rise of corporations, and the (author’s) projected decline of their power on our culture, particularly, mastery of our attention and the amount of ‘free agents’ who offer attention-grabbing content. Interesting, even if I didn’t get it all.

Rise and Fall of Corporate influence

mapping interactions

cities, culture, tech


Do regional boundaries defined by governments respect the more natural ways that people interact across space? This paper proposes a novel, fine-grained approach to regional delineation, based on analyzing networks of billions of individual human transactions. Given a geographical area and some measure of the strength of links between its inhabitants, we show how to partition the area into smaller, non-overlapping regions while minimizing the disruption to each person’s links. We tested our method on the largest non-Internet human network, inferred from a large telecommunications database in Great Britain. Our partitioning algorithm yields geographically cohesive regions that correspond remarkably well with administrative regions, while unveiling unexpected spatial structures that had previously only been hypothesized in the literature. We also quantify the effects of partitioning, showing for instance that the effects of a possible secession of Wales from Great Britain would be twice as disruptive for the human network than that of Scotland.
Carlo Ratti, Stanislav Sobolevsky, Francesco Calabrese, Clio Andris, Jonathan Reades, Mauro Martino, Rob Claxton, Steven H Strogatz – PLoS ONE, 2010

Download PDF


We investigate the extent to which social ties between people can be inferred from co-occurrence in time and space: Given that two people have been in approximately the same geographic locale at approximately the same time, on multiple occasions, how likely are they to know each other? Furthermore, how does this likelihood depend on the spatial and temporal proximity of the co-occurrences? Such issues arise in data originating in both online and offline domains as well as settings that capture interfaces between online and offline behavior. Here we develop a framework for quantifying the answers to such questions, and we apply this framework to publicly available data from a social media site, finding that even a very small number of co-occurrences can result in a high empirical likelihood of a social tie. Our analysis uses data in which individuals engage in activities at known places and times. There are many potential sources of such data, including transaction records from cell phones, public transit systems, and credit-card providers. We use a source where analogous activities are recorded publicly and online: a large-scale dataset from the popular photo-sharing site Flickr. Most photos uploaded to Flickr include the time at which the photo was taken, as reported by a clock in the digital camera, and many photos are also geo-tagged with a latitude–longitude coordinate indicating where on Earth the photograph was taken. These geo-tags either are specified by the photographer by clicking on a map in the Flickr web site, or (increasingly) are produced by a global positioning system (GPS) receiver in the camera or cell phone. Flickr also contains a public social network, in which users specify social ties to other users.



The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbour” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.

From the Vatican, 24 January 2011, Feast of Saint Francis de Sales

david & anne

culture, tech

David in the Mall

Yesterday was the 300 year anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the foundation of copyright. Last week we talked about Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, and I told my story about how UNLV students believed that the reproduction of David set in the mall of Caesars’ Palace is the real Michelangelo’s David. We talked about Walter Benjamin, and how the mechanical reproduction of the art object destroys its aura and whether the access that is gained through the process also has its shinier aspects (‘Hey, you get to have Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss hanging on your dorm wall.’) But to commemorate the anniversary, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing has sharp things to say, that reflect on the object example I often use in class:

If there’s one lie more corrosive to creativity above all others, it is the lie of romantic individual originality. Today, ‘copyright curriculum’ warns schoolchildren not to be ‘copycats’ – to come up with their own original notions.

We are that which copies. Three or four billion years ago, by some process that we don’t understand, molecules began to copy themselves. We are the distant descendants of those early copyists – copying is in our genes. We have a word for things that don’t copy: ‘dead’.

Walk the streets of Florence and you’ll find a ‘David’ on every corner: because for half a millennium, Florentine sculptors have learned their trade by copying (but try to take a picture of ‘David’ on his plinth and you’ll be tossed out by a security guard who wants to end this great tradition in order to encourage you to buy a penny postcard).

pjs and public space

cities, culture

PJs in Public

From Boing Boing, there’s a nice moment wherein we can see how the spaces of urban life create culture. Simmel wrote of social roles that spring up from urban life (e.g., the quatorzième), which Park picked up on, and Goffman writes about ‘make-dos’ in Asylums, to show how the constant existence within the semi-public spaces of a mental institution leads to little unauthorized strategies. A nice analysis by Chinese sociologist Zhang Jiehai, explains that the fashion is born as “a matter of practicality because people lived in cramped conditions with no clear line between public space and private place.” This, again, reminds me (again) of the winding walkways and the ‘unofficial streets’ of San Francisco, where public and private collide. What I’m a little surprised at is that this is hardly a youthful trend… From a quick scan of images (from National Geographic and Flickr) it appears to cut across age groups.

Of course, the reason this arises is because it is from an article on how the Chinese government is trying to crack down on this particular phenomenon.

corporations as persons, “not true?”

101, culture

I like showing the first few minutes of The Corporation when teaching Politics and Economics in 101.

I’ll have the opportunity to touch up that opening gambit on Corporate Personhood with a few recent news clippings. The first is the much-avoided (in the mass media) topic of the Citizen’s United ruling which, according to the majority opinion, is a validation of First Amendment free speech. (Justice Alito, when POTUS did a public shaming of the Court on this matter, reportedly mouthed ‘Not true’.) The other part is a nice news clip (and here) about how, in the economic meltdown, corporations have been walking away from their $4.4 billion debt, called an ‘underwater property’ (like the massive 56-building/11,282 property Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town complex), to ‘protect shareholder value’ while individuals are shamed into their debts: In the Wall Street Journal, the head of the Mortgage Bankers Association was quoted as saying, “What about the message they will send to their family and their kids and their friends?” (Morgan Stanley walked away from five San Fransisco office buildings last month too.)

Update 2/10/10: A student informed me that a PR firm, Murray Hill Inc., is running for the Republican primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, tongue in cheek. Campaign Manager William Klein “plans to use automated robo-calls, ‘Astroturf” lobbying and computer-generated avatars to get out the vote.”

double crossing


The Specials

Last week for our culture reading group, I had to lead the discussion on Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a classic that many had not read. So, instead of giving a mini-lecture on the book, I thought I would give some of the trans-Atlantic cultural exchanges a little context by going through some of the songs that seeped into my psyche when I was too young to know what it was all about. First, I showed them Toots and the Maytals’ 1968 song, ‘Pressure Drop‘ and then the title track cover of Robert Palmer’s 1975 R&B version, and then to show the link from Reggae to Punk: The Clash’s 1978 B-Side. Then The Specials’ version, which only came out in 1996, but their inter-racial ska-punk was certainly influenced by these movements. (And I hate to say it, but it was only when I read Hebdige’s book that I figured out that The Specials’ ‘A Message to You, Rudy‘ and The Clash’s ‘Rudy Can’t Fail‘ were references to Rude Boy subculture–Jamaican patois for a juvenile delinquent.)

The Gentlemen of Bacongo

Then, just to show that Toots wasn’t oblivious to the way in which cross-cultural exchanges had their benefits, I played for the group their killer rendition of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,’ which replaces ‘West Virginia’ with ‘West Jamaica.’

Update: Not completely disconnected, I came across Daniele Tamagni’s new book The Gentlement of Bacongo, a photo essay of the street style of the Sapeurs, or dandies, of the Congo. ‘Sape’ (the ‘Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance’ or ‘Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes’) is called ‘the religion of clothing.’ According to Dylan Jones, who reviewed the book, Sapeurs ‘fantasise about walking the streets of Paris or Brussels – places most can only dream of visiting – returning to Brazzaville as sartorial aristocrats of ultimate elegance.’ This distinctive style is a rebellion against traditional African costume… There is a strict code of honor and sense of morality as members, and there is no violence or fighting. According to the book, it’s all done with the clothes: Pierre Cardin, Roberto Cavalli, Dior, Fendi, Gaultier, Gucci, Issy Miyake, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace, Yohji Yamamoto. I would love to see a Hebdige version of this phenomenon.

coffee and cities

cities, culture, tech
This Machine Kills Fascists

This Machine Kills Fascists

It’s hard to argue against the relationship between coffee and gentrification. Sharon Zukin, for example, writes about ‘pacification by cappuccino‘ and my new neighbor Andrew Papachristos writes about the interrelationship between crime and coffee. I’ll just say this for now: The Blue Bottle’s Kyoto style cold-brewed chemistry set of a machine made me come back five times in four days. I groveled to get my last cup before I headed out of town.

Finding delicious coffee should be added to either Kieran‘s or Andrew‘s ASA Bingo cards. Although I’m doing my best to reserve judgment on Atlanta’s coffee scene.

Coffee Shop, 1956

Coffee Shop, 1956

Tangentially (although coffeeshop-related), there is something to be said for catching a good museum exhibit. In my case, coming early to the ASA, I made it to a Robert Frank exhibit at the SfMoMA. Four rooms were dedicated to the four sections of The Americans. (Read Anthony Lane’s writeup here.) It was an incredible experience, and the narrative became overwhelming, if a little forced by the placards. I use RF via Howard Becker’s Telling About Society for my Media and Technology class, as his work is clearly sociological. He writes:

Robert Frank’s (…) enormously influential The Americans is in ways reminiscent both of Tocqueville‘s analysis of American institutions and of the analysis of cultural themes by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Frank presents photographs made in scattered places around the country, returning again and again to such themes as the flag, the automobile, race, restaurants—eventually turning those artifacts, by the weight of the associations in which he embeds them, into profound and meaningful symbols of American culture.

Fellow museum compatriot, Patrick Inglis, reminded me of Walker Evans‘ style of taking surreptitious photographs of his subjects, and it got me thinking about technique a little more.

Update: A nice review of the 50 year anniversary of The Americans is here.

semi-public, semi-private space

cities, culture

In San Francisco for the ASA, I did a little scouting around and came across a bunch of ‘unaccepted streets’ thanks to a lovely local. She told me about how these are a ‘public right of way’ that has not been built according to city standards and has not been accepted by the city’s Board of Supervisors for maintenance. These are scattered all over the town, and the residents are required to take care of them. According to the San Francisco Public Works Code:

Residents of Penny Lane Arrange a Beautification Day

Residents of Penny Lane Arrange a Beautification Day

sec. 400.1. Owners of frontage responsible for removal of rubbish or debris from unaccepted streets that are unpaved. It shall be the duty of the owners of lots or portions of lots immediately adjacent to any portion of the roadway of any unpaved street, avenue, lane, alley, court or place, or any portion of any sidewalk thereof, in the City and County of San Francisco, none of which has been accepted by the Supervisors as by law or as in the Charter of said City and County provided, to maintain said roadways or sidewalks adjacent to their property free and clear of rubbish or debris. (Added by Ord. 16-71, App. 1/26/71)

The San Francisco Public Trust has a plan to make these spaces into ‘street parks,’ but what is interesting is that many locals have enchanted these places into their own: transforming them into public gardens, or making their own mosaic-tiled parking space. I was also fascinated by the little paths and stairs that weave around people’s homes, that have these lovely pockets in which residents have decorated them with flowers, art, and mosaics.

This stands in dramatic contrast with what I have always thought of as ‘privately owned public spaces:’ Corporate-held public plazas–in which landowners could build beyond their envelope due to a 1961 Zoning Plan incentive program–detailed in Jerold Kayden‘s excellent book. The NYC Department of City Planning reports:

Approximately 16 percent of the spaces are actively used as regional destinations or neighborhood gathering spaces, 21 percent are usable as brief resting places, 18 percent are circulation-related, four percent are being renovated or constructed, and 41 percent are of marginal utility.

While in San Francisco, I also hung out with Venice Beach urbanist, Andrew Deener, and he told me that his work touches on the Venice Canals, which exist in a way similar to SF’s unaccepted streets: this one-time aspiring Disneyland/Coney Island neighborhood fell on hard times, but is now a isolated bourgeois citadel thanks to these manufactured canals. Interestingly, like the unaccepted roads in San Fransisco, the City does nothing to maintain the canals, even though they are the only way for residents (and city services) to access their homes.

Scum River Bridge

Update (2/1/10): A nice little example of Urban Alchemy is in Astoria, where residents have built a bridge over ‘Scum River’ using a nearby broken bench. (This actually received an accommodation from the office of NYC Council Member Peter F. Vallone, Jr. January 25th)

on television, on #amazonfail

culture, tech

This week we’re up to Bourdieu’s On Television. In one class we talked about unveiling the logics of debate and discourse and I used the now-classic example of Jon Stewart going on CNN’s Crossfire and doing everything shy of dismantling the risers underneath the audience. I thought that his ‘I’m just a comedian, but you’re hurting America’ was weak tea, but they packed it in after the gig was up. When a Vice President of the Associated Press threatens a Nashville radio station for using their content (which is to say linking to the AP’s own YouTube Channel–that encludes the codes to embed the videos with–that they apparently didn’t know they had) only to find out that the radio station is actually an affiliate you really know that the unveiling of the mechanisms of cultural production can be a shock to the leviathans themselves. (See a video discussion of it here.)

The brouhaha this weekend was #amazonfail, in which a supposed filing glitch/algorithm led to hundreds, even thousands of titles to be labeled ‘adult’ and therefore, go unranked. Mary Hodder compares how one book (The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk) lost its sales ranking while another (A Parent’s Guide to Homosexuality) kept it. Amazon claims that it was a ‘glitch’ (see their statement here), but Hodder says that authors (like Craig Seymour) were notified months ago that they had lost their ranking for merely including positive content on LGBT themes/content, and notes that the first five books that come up in a search for ‘homosexuality’ are all anti-gay. Clay Shirky has a slightly divergent opinion. (Thanks KB!)

global examples of urban alchemy

cities, culture

Indian Sidewalk Barber

E.g., Ugandan Public Phone Booth on a BicycleWilliamsburg Hipster Solar Powered Power Charger Cart, Ugandan Charge Cart, Outdoor Barbers in India, Oaxaca Mobile Stores, London’s Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, Kenyan Chalk Graffiti, Minnesotean Political Campaign Dolly, Chinese Street Retail, Joshua Callaghan’s infrastructure camouflage public art, Congolese Street Arcade, and (recent favorite) UK ‘Reverse Graffiti.’

Street Arcade

Street Arcade

while thinking about representation in ethnography…

cities, culture, writing

…I often think of Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Manohla Dargis, in viewing Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, is reminded of Borges’ On Exactitude of Science. Here:

…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men ( 1658 ) by J. A. Suarez Miranda

Borges, J.L. 1999. Collected Fictions. Trans. A.H. Hurley. New York: Penguin.

ville invisible

cities, culture

Oh, the beginnings of the semester, and a hard drive meltdown (to the rescue: Time Capsule) have put a lull in ye ole blogging/posting. Very close to sending out some new work on the transformation of the urban public spaces, and found a translation of Bruno Latour’s Paris: Ville Invisible in both text (pdf), and in a flash/visual representation. Very exciting for me, since translating more than a few sections at a time was too prohibitive. It includes some of the best writing he’s done:

At a certain temperature Society no longer exists. It breaks down like bits of DNA that are heated slightly; it frays like them, becomes stringy. It is no longer a sphere next to other spheres, like grapefruits packed in a box, but a weird way of moving about, tracing figures, like unknown writing on rice paper painted with an  invisible brush (p. 11)