Saturday, December 20, 2008

Statistic of the Day: Subways

While the population of New York City is about 8.3 million, subway ridership on an average weekday is only about 5.2 million. And that number is probably card swipes, not individual riders -- many of us are riding twice a day.

According to New York City Transit, the biggest single day for the subway system was December 23, 1946 with about 7 million rides.

Source: The New York Times, Sunday, December 14, 2008.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quote of the Day: Kenan Malik

Here's Kenan Malik writing in Spiked:
"In 1989 even the Ayatollah’s death sentence could not stop the publication of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were killed, bookshops bombed and Penguin staff forced to wear bomb-proof vests. Yet Penguin never wavered in its commitment to keep it published.

"Today, all it takes for a publisher to run for cover is a letter from an outraged academic. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised."

Malik is the author of the upcoming book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy. The passage above is from the transcript of a talk he gave in November. [via Arts and Letters Daily.]

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Best News I've Heard All Week

Nestled between headlines about Tara Reid checking into rehab and British scientists discovering a nearly intact 2,000-year-old brain was a gem of an item in the Associated Press's breaking news:
Fla. Woman Drinking on Roof Asks Man for More Beer

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (AP) — A man called police on Wednesday night after he came home from work and spotted an intoxicated woman drinking a beer on the roof of his home. The 28-year-old woman was taken into custody after she refused to get down and leave. The police report said the woman agreed to leave only if the man agreed to give her more beer.

The woman, who faces a disorderly intoxication charge, has been in trouble before.

A police report shows that she was suspected of stealing money from her sister to buy alcohol in October. And last week an officer who went to her apartment on a disturbance report reported that Smith was intoxicated and wouldn't quiet down.
[via the AP.]

But who is Smith? The story was obviously truncated by the AP. The original headline from the TC Palm was just as good:
'Drunk Pedestrian' on Roof Won't Come Down, Seeks More Beer
At least she didn't drive up there. The woman was Amber D. Smith, and the Palm included her mugshot.

The omission of a first reference to her name aside, the AP's version of the story is delightfully straightforward, as if the second writer had edited out the reporter's incredulity.


Monday, December 08, 2008

The Art Market Cools

From the UK's Prospect Magazine:
The bubble in contemporary art is about to pop. It has exhibited all the classic features of the South Sea bubble of 1720 or the tulip madness of the 1630s. It has been the bubble of bubbles—balancing precariously on top of other now-burst bubbles in credit, housing and commodities—and inflating more dramatically than all of them. While British house prices took six years to double at the start of this century, contemporary art managed it in just one, 2006-07. (Over the same period, old masters went up by just 7.6 per cent and British 17th to 19th century watercolours actually lost value.) Contemporary art in the emerging economies did even better. The value of its sales in China increased by 983 per cent in one year (2005-06). In Russia they rose 2,365 per cent in five years (2000-05), while its stock market increased by "only" about 300 per cent.
Ben Lewis and Jonathan Ford compare the contemporary art bubble to the 17th century Tulip Mania in Holland. ''It is impossible to comprehend the tulip mania without understanding just how different tulips were from every other flower known to horticulturists in the 17th century,'' wrote Mike Dash, author of Tulipomania. Amsterdam in the 1620s was flush with East India trading profits, and the tulip market was turning into a new area for speculators. After building into a frenzy for about ten years, and with tulip bulbs commanding prices that climbed absurdly high, the market crashed in February 1637.

There's been a bit of debate over the last few years about whether or not the tulip craze counts as a bubble, but the crash was real. (As I understand it, it was a bubble if the Dutch were delusional; if they acted rationally, it was just a crash.)

A typical observer may not know the difference. He or she sees only a small but influential group of fantastically wealthy people rapidly getting involved in a market they knew nothing about and had little interest in before the frenzy. Suddenly, the object of the market is eclipsed by the market itself. It no longer matters what's being traded.

But it's even worse than just trading fancy stuff. The trading becomes wrapped up in potential and future values of things.

"The market is a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight," wrote critic Jerry Saltz in 2007.

Is the art market making us stupid? asked Saltz. It was certainly making lesser critics less critical.

Those who had a financial interest could be relied upon to say something inane. Like Tobias Meyer, the head of Sotheby's contemporary art division, who famously said in 2007:
"The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart."
This incredibly idiotic statement sounds dangerously close to the sort of thing we hear from the unreflective rich: The poor must deserve to be poor, otherwise they'd be rich.

One doesn't have to believe that art by Damien Hirst and Richard Prince is bad to believe that it shouldn't be so damn expensive. "Are we sometimes liking things because we know the market likes them or are we really liking them?" asks Saltz. Money changes perception. It's that simple.

The critic Robert Hughes told the UK Telegraph recently:
“One of the things that sustains the art market is an irrational faith in a continuous rise in prices. There was a 17th-century Italian painter called Guido Reni. Not a lot of people have heard of him but in the late 18th century many connoisseurs thought that Italy’s two supreme artists were Michelangelo and Reni. But by 1950 you could buy a 10ft painting by Reni for £300. People fall out of fashion quite rapidly. So this idea of the inviolability of the modern art market is a fantasy.”
In June, Tobias Meyer was quoted as saying that for the first time since 1914, “we are in a non-cyclical market.” Idiot.

The problem, Hughes says, is that “Instead of being the common property of humankind the way a book is, art becomes the particular property of somebody who can afford it."

The good news is that, a) the art market is starting to cool, and b) much of the most over-valued contemporary art -- the stuff that went straight from Damien Hirst's factory to the auction floor -- wasn't worthy of any museum anyway: it was created to sell, not to entertain, delight, enlighten, or educate.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dueling Perfume Reviews

Two reviewers, about a year apart, had very strong opinions about the boldly-named "Breath of God" by a perfume company called B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful:

First, Hadley Freeman writing in the Guardian in October 2007
"So what, you cry, does The Breath of God smell like? Hellfire? Benevolence? Aquafresh?

"Well, rather like religion, everyone seems to take something different from the Breath of God. One guinea pig detects the scent of nail polish remover. Another suggests the gentle bouquet of cheap booze. Personally, it is exactly how I always imagined those vials of liquid used in period dramas to bring pale heroines round after a fainting spell would smell. Almost like -- yes -- a wake-up call. To what, I'm not sure (to have a shower, probably, to scrub it off) but truly, I have felt the breath of God on my neck."
And then Tania Sanchez, co-author of the superb Perfumes: The Guide, writing in this month's quarterly supplement to the Guide
"Such an experiment should be a hot mess. But it’s a triumph, a walk through an autumnal landscape in shades of pencil gray instead of painterly gold, with the sweet biological rot of compost below and dry air touched with woodsmoke above. In structure it is reminiscent of the best of Serge Lutens’s scents, straddling the dark cedar-violet of the Bois fragrances and epic florals such as Sarrasins and El Attarine, and it has a herbal air of archaic medicine, or potions to ward off malice. Surreal combinations—lemon ham, grape leather, bubblegum tobacco, loquat vetiver—rise from its depths each time it comes to attention, hour after hour. Wearing it, I feel a sense of wonder that so late in the perfume game there still can be such profound invention."
Sanchez gave it a rare five stars.

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