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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Feed the Artists - Be the Artists

  In an era where Americans cut every creative program possible during all but the flushest economic times, the British are considering an increase in funding for the arts.

Wild About Harry by D.D. Guttenplan (, subscription required - and you really should subscribe) discusses how the many positive impacts of the American Works Progress Administration during one of the United State's major economic depressions is inspiring plans for new programs to support Britain's cultural industries.

The British have fabulous cultural industries they intend to preserve through the current economic crises, and the article touches briefly on innovative ideas that sprung from a lecture on the merits of the WPA. But what I liked best about the article, aside from a progressive characterization of the WPA's cultural achievements, was this very democratic statement:
It was the WPA that taught a generation of Americans that culture is not something that you go out and buy, or passively consume, but something that is made by and belongs to people like themselves.
The WPA produced some great art and architecture during some very difficult times. We now think of those buildings, those murals, those photos, as quintessential American treasures. Imagine what we could make now, if we cared to invest in it.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:07 PM

Michelle Obama's terrifying pesticide-free garden

  Michelle Obama isn't using pesticides, and it is freaking out lobbyists. You often hear that the personal is political, that little things can make a difference. This is apparently all the more true for the President's wife, because the fact that the First Lady's little garden is organic is, apparently, a threat to big Ag.

At least, they are treating it that way.

The Nation referenced a strange letter that big Ag recently sent to the White House in protest of the absence of poison. They also circulated the letter and advised others that the entire idea of a garden without chemical pesticides made them "shudder." The idea of food with chemical residues gives someone nightmares, it turns out. Thankfully, this someone does not cooks my food.

La Vida Locavore:: Organic White House Garden Puts Some Conventional Panties in a Twist ( has the whole text of the letter, which is quite a piece of propaganda... against home gardening. Scary, scary gardening. A sample:
We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents. Americans are juggling jobs with the needs of children and aging parents. The time needed to tend a garden is not there for the majority of our citizens, certainly not a garden of sufficient productivity to supply much of a family's year-round food needs.
It takes a moment to figure out what they are trying to say. Apparently, my grandparents had lots of time to mess around growing food without pesticides, and they could ignore their families, which is a luxury modern people cannot afford. Also, if I garden, my goal must be to produce a year-round supply of food.

I hate having to choose between caring for my family and growing food. I'm so glad that farmers are willing neglect their families so that I can live a modern life... Sorry I trailed off, I was laughing again.

Lobbyists are not paid to make sense: they are paid to put the interests of their industry first. Their industry now employs very few people; requires lots of chemicals and energy inputs; requires heavy taxpayer subsidies; is so successful that farmers produce more output than can be profitably sold in this country, so that farmers may be paid not to farm because their output will further depress consumer prices and worsen the glut of overproduction... Fewer and fewer people are benefiting from this arrangement. And so the lobbyists feel the need to write letters like this, which somehow manage to make their entire industry look ridiculous.

Farming is really hard work. Farming organically, which everyone in the world did until the 1940s or so, is even harder. But it produces some really great products, it improves the land if managed properly, and farmers are paid a premium for their work. Reading letters like this one makes me take the industry position to its natural, illogical extremes: microbreweries are inefficient, and you don't have time to brew beer, so just drink Bud; you really don't have time to cook your own food or run a restaurant, so just eat frozen entrees made by professionals in modern factories; styling your hair that way takes up too much of your time, you should shave you head and wear one of our wigs, which will save you thousands on shampoo; why spend so much time writing individual e-mail messages, when professionals can send one note to all of your friends at once...

Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, but it is strange to see the quantity position aggressively put forth in an age when (I like to think) there is abundant evidence of quality coming back into style.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:33 PM

Monday, June 29, 2009

Large format homemade camera version 1.0

  homemade camera, main body by A.E. Graves
[Image: homemade camera, main body]

If you know me, you know that I am wandering around with huge lists of creative projects I am eager to complete. I try not to carry the actual lists with me, in hopes that I'll forget some of the new project ideas and so can keep the lists closer to realistic (whatever that is), but this strategy generally doesn't work. Right now, my to-do list has additional projects for the Getty Conservation Institute (including a repeat of my first submission on a different paper), THREE photo books to layout, contests to enter, articles to write for, tests to perform on a Polaroid camera I just acquired through eBay, modifications to same involving Fresnel lenses... Until recently, the number one item was building my own large format camera.

But recently, I crossed that one off the list. Because I did it.

I've mentioned in the past that I've got several wet plate collodion projects in the works. I ordinarily rent a specialized package of equipment (including a LF camera), chemistry, and a darkroom to shoot my work. For reasons which I don't completely understand, it hasn't been possible for me to get into the rental studio to get my work done. It hasn't been available; one chemical or another has been lacking; an attendant had a scheduling conflict, and couldn't prepare something for me; the booking went awry.... Obstacle after obstacle. And during this long waiting period, I thought about the ways that the rental program is GREAT... but that it doesn't really give me control over anything, including adjustments to the chemistry I might want to make.

homemade camera with sliding box extension, by A.E. Graves [Image: homemade camera with sliding box extension in use.]

Of course, I would love to have total control. And this led me to think about getting set up to do this sort of work at home. There was one big obstacle, and that is that I am faced with a request for large-format collodion plates, and I did not have a large format camera. The new LF cameras I was looking at looked like they would cost me about $6,000. I searched the couch for change, but didn't come up with enough to spring for one of those.

I have some great books on camera-building, which were quite inspirational. I decided to use my limited understanding of optics to build one by myself.

If you are a gear-head, you may be scoffing right now, laughing at the idea of me building the chunky DSLR that's hanging around your neck right now. Obviously I wouldn't spend my time replicating that. (I don't intend to spend weeks of my life adjusting the white balance of the output. I mean, c'mon.) But semi-permanent photography has been around since the 1840s, and between then and now, there have been many effective, simple cameras.

Cameras are, at their simplest, a box with a lens on one side, and something photosensitive tucked away inside opposite the lens, waiting to be exposed to light focused by the lens. The lens or the box needs to be able to keep light out when not in use, and sometimes the lens needs to squint. For the slow emulsions I use - think ASA 3 - the exposure can be handled by me walking over and removing the lens cap manually for the duration of the exposure, and then putting it back on at the end.

subject and positive print made with homemade camera, by A.E. Graves [Image: sample in-camera positive print beside the subject. The ratio is approximately one to one.]

Without boring you to tears, I'll describe what I did briefly:

-I went onto eBay and bought a "process lens," which is a lens optimized for one-to-one duplication.

-I took the manufacturer's estimated focal length for the lens, and built a box approximately as long as that focal length, and as wide and tall as some 8" x 10" film holders I'd previously bought on eBay, and mounted the lens to one end.

-On the other end, I made a translucent screen using a thick, vellum-like tracing paper. This is a focusing screen, and is also the film plane, where the photo paper or plate will rest. I used this right away to test the design, and immediately got an image on the screen!!!

-I built a long box of slightly smaller diameter that barely fits inside the main box. This box can slide in and out, performing the same functions as bellows on an LF camera. (I got this idea from a clever book called Primitive Photography, which I'll write about elsewhere. I executed it differently from the book.) I can explain what bellows do, but I don't want you to fall asleep.

-I bought some photo paper which (a) makes positive images when developed, and (b) has about the same speed as sensitized collodion, so that I could practice with this paper first, and establish baselines for exposure and focus. (I'll write about this paper at once I've tested it more extensively.)

-I tested the camera, and got great images!!

There are some refinements I need to make to the design to make it operate better, including an improved focusing screen, and better sliding box movement in moist weather. But I think I can manage those improvements, and get this simple camera operable for wet plates. Perhaps even by the holiday weekend!

I'm positively giddy over making this camera. My success is making my project list longer, of course, because now that I know I can build an 8 x 10 camera, I realize I could build all sorts of other special purpose cameras, including panoramic cameras, 4 x 5 cameras, any number of simpler lens cameras, and perhaps some twin lens reflexes...

The next item on my list is getting a collodion studio set up at home, which is something of an ordeal. And after that, plate making at home. I expect to achieve both of these goals in July. I'll report back, and will also post a link here when I write my review of the positive paper.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:08 AM

Sunday, June 28, 2009


  Tears of laughter ran down my face from the very idea that customers at the pirate supply store were offended by the 'kitten plank' - a plank for use when making a disloyal kitten "walk the plank" to depart your pirate ship...

I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is a gorgeous, sunny, hot weekend in San Francisco. Today, in between my favorite, distant, Chinese supermarket and my favorite inner Richmond cafe, I was violently sucked into Green Apple Books (, my favorite bookstore in San Francisco. Among other purchases (oh, how they torment me with books I want!), I acquired Essentially Odd: A Catalog of Products Created For and Sold At the 826 National Stores ( It is the best, and funniest, catalog I have ever owned.826 Valencia peg leg oil

826 National is the umbrella organization behind the tutoring centers that Dave Eggers set up, starting with 826 Valencia ( Yes, you've been past it. If you're walking north on Valencia on the west side of the street, you pass a park, an alley with a cool mural, a restaurant, a cooperative art gallery, a pirate supply store, a natural history shop... Yes, it is the pirate supply store.

Of course it is the pirate supply store.

That's just the front of the building: there is a tutoring store in the back. But, for various reasons explained in the book, they needed to sell things up front, and they decided the building looked a bit like a ship interior, and the pirate supply shop was born.

Early on, the 826 founders decided that the shop should serve working pirates, as opposed to being a kitschy shop about pirates.
Medicine for scurvy, mermaid repellent/bait, cannon fuses, peg leg oil, beard extensions...

I know, I know, you are wondering how you have lived without having visited this shop. And I'm saying: go! Go now! Well, okay, wait until it's open. But definitely go.

But this catalog does not MERELY contain images and descriptions of the items available in SF's shop. Oh no. There are other 826 tutoring centers. And they each have a shop. A different kind of shop. One, for example, sells only super hero supplies. Another: time travel necessities. Another: robot repair & maintenance supplies.

Yes, they really SELL these things. They do! And all of the sales go to support the tutoring centers.

You'll see me sporting a Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair hoodie as soon as I get my long, tapering, alien hands on one. Once you have the catalog, you can visit the appropriate 826 center's website to order their cool merchandise. (It looks like the 826 National Store will eventually be able to centralize sales inquiries.)

Creative people who love reading, good design, and ambient wackiness ROCK.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:23 PM

Why aren't you here doing my bidding?!?

  Well? What do you have to say for yourself?


[This post brought to you by the Random Outburst Department, the same department that brought you "Why didn't you go before you left the house?" at inappropriate times (at tea with the Queen, in the middle of the business proposal, at the all-hands meeting, etc.).

This is also a reminder that, if you are reading this in the form of a Facebook "note," that this note originates on my blog at, and Facebook is serving as a cool aggregator by posting it where you can see it. When it looks like I am posting while not visibly logged on, it is because Facebook is collecting this post from my blog on its own schedule, and/or on Blogger's schedule, since I can set up posts in advance to be published later. Status updates from my Twitter feed are usually posted from my phone while on the go, and also do not reflect logged-on time.]


posted by Arlene (Beth)7:55 PM

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Classics of Zombie Literature

  Yes, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith is all I had hoped for. It is literature. It is gory. It is romantic. It involves ninjas. And it provides social commentary about the place of women in society in new ways. I quote:
My sisters and I cannot spend any substantial time searching for [my sister's boyfriend/captor], as we are each commanded by His Majesty to defend Hertfordshire from all enemies until such time as we are dead, rendered lame, or married.
Yes, as you might expect, it is unseemly for ladies to slay legions of the undead, and even more unseemly to do so WELL. No matter how one's country might need one's help during periods of shambling, brain-eating unpleasantness, a respectable lady, especially a married one, must retire from her violent, gory, life-saving service. (Oh, the stupidity of patriarchy.)

I love this book. I recommend it. If you're near me, I might even be willing to loan it to you.

I'm not saying I want the undead versions of all enjoyable works of literature... although, come to think of it, Wuthering Heights would be even more joyously overwrought if... If... NO. Wait. Stop right there! Don't! Well... Hmmmmm.....

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:28 PM

Alternatively, security forces will invite you over for a spicy dinner

  Chili peppers have many wonderful applications. They are good as foods, as condiments, as pesticides for your tender garden plants, and as weapons.
BBC NEWS | South Asia | India plans hot chilli grenades (, 6/25/09) takes the weapons idea beyond pepper spray:
Indian defence scientists are planning to put one of the world's hottest chilli powders into hand grenades.
The article goes on to say that a chili called the "bhut jolokia," which I'd never before heard of, is extraordinarily hot, and ideal for this purpose.

The questions that come to mind:

(1) Why haven't I been cooking with this chili? It sounds like it is hot-unpleasant instead of hot-tasty, but surely it is good in SOME dish.

(2) Would it be possible to produce grenades with other spices? There are a few really bland restaurants in my neighborhood, and I think a ginger & garlic grenade could dramatically improve just about everything they do. A bay grenade would make my house smell WONDERFUL (in an oppressively fresh kind of way). A cinnamon grenade would...

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posted by Arlene (Beth)8:19 PM

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Health advice we want to believe

  I like hearing people I know give each other health advice. It usually lets me learn about all kinds of cool herbs and tasty, home-remedy solutions that people enjoy taking. I love delicious ginger-root anything for stomach ailments, which employ chemical compounds known as gingerols - a real word! I love hot honey-lemon beverages for sore throats and colds: these utilize the anti-bacterial properties of honey, the vitamin C in lemons, and the fact that most combinations of those things are as sweet as any dessert. Which is why they REALLY make you feel better.

Wouldn't we all be healthy if desserts functioned as medicine? You bet we would.

I was kind of bored by some advice one of my sedentary friends got today about lowering her cholesterol. Namely: to exercise.

You know what I was hoping for. I was hoping for tasty beverage recipes! No luck.

However, I had some doubts about the advice. I love exercise (I [heart heart] my bike!), but is it the best thing for high cholesterol? Thanks to the Internet, I learned... that exercise sort of helps a bit, especially if you are wildly sedentary, if those words can be combined that way. Exercise To Lower Cholesterol (, the highest ranked Google search result for 'exercise lower cholesterol', uses phrases like "those who got moderate exercise... did lower their LDL level somewhat."

Somewhat? Would that inspire you to leap on a treadmill?

When you read it, you'll see all the best info is on page two. Summary: if you are serious about lowering your cholesterol, change your diet, talk with your doctor about drugs that might help, and exercise like you mean it. Because health is important, and is worth a real effort.

You knew that. Now pass me a homemade ginger ale.


posted by Arlene (Beth)9:58 PM

New review up at Review of Diffusion Magazine, Volume One is a brief new article discussing a new, alternative photographic process magazine that just published its inaugural issue. The magazine looks great, and I think it fills an interesting niche.

Links elsewhere at will take you to a sample article from the magazine, and provide links for you to buy it if you are interested.

(The link I provided is to the review I wrote: I am not associated with the magazine.)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:04 PM

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My lungs hurt

  The thing I hate most about asthmatic bronchitis (which I get even though I am not ordinarily asthmatic), is that feeling that the very bottom of my lungs have ice water in them. It is the kind of cold that hurts. It hurts in a deep, heavy way. And I keep hoping, while I'm coughing hard (which also hurts) and making deep, unpleasant sounds that are attracting seals for miles, that I can just cough out the ice, and then my lungs won't ache so...


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:53 PM

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Downtown Oakland Dining

  Neon sign reading Vegetarian Restaurant at Golden Lotus, Oakland, CA, photograph by A.E. GravesWhen I think of eating in the East Bay, I usually think of Berkeley. Over the years, my friends and relatives who went to UC introduced me to several restaurants which are local institutions: Zachary's Pizza, Cactus Taqueria, Plearn Thai Restaurant... Standby, solid eateries that have been around since at least the late 80s.

When I'm in downtown Oakland, I usually think of a Cambodian restaurant I used to love, but my last visit resulted in some alarming bland, slightly gross dishes that convinced me to cross it off my list. So I drew a blank when trying to decide where to eat before attending Oakland Art Murmur (, the gallery walk that occurs the first Friday of every month.

Thanks to the Internet, I found Golden Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant (, a sister restaurant to SF's Golden Era ( Although Golden Lotus' website doesn't do it justice, and the menu lists items that look like they contain meat, the actual menu makes it clear that it is a vegan place - no eggs, no dairy, no meat. Joy!

image of lemongrass tofu at Golden Lotus, Oakland, CA, photograph by A.E. Graves Do you want to hear me gush about how delicious the lemongrass tofu is? How perfectly spiced and tasty it is? About how good the brown rice was? Or of how wonderful it is to order a Thai iced tea, and have it be dairy-free?? I could go on at length. It was WONDERFUL.

I should have restrained myself just a little: I left overstuffed when I had planned to leave only stuffed, but the entree was too good to leave unfinished.

A vegan pal of mine used to eat there three times a week when he lived in the area, and he insists that Golden Era (which he lives near now) is slightly better than Golden Lotus. I think I'm going to have to 'force' myself to do research on this point to establish if this is true.

I [heart] pan Asian vegan food!


posted by Arlene (Beth)5:27 PM

Bottle on the Roof

  night view at SFMoMA roof garden[Image at left: an evening view from SFMoMA's new roof sculpture garden, looking toward the galleries]

There is an update to my list of cafes of which I am fond, and that is Blue Bottle Coffee's ( new location on the new roof garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (

The museum already has a very good restaurant, but it is delightful to have yet another indoor/outdoor option. Up on the top floor, you can pass over a "bridge" between the main museum building and its garage, and find yourself in a pleasant, indoor space with two sculpture-filled patios on either side. Blue Bottle is nestled into the far wall, behind an attractive sliding panel that hides the cafe when it is closed. When it is open, it is easy to find, because that is where the addicts are all lined up, waiting for their fix.

Blue Bottle SFMoMAThe cafe is tidy, and the staff are pleasant and efficient, though BBC fans know that it takes some time for their perfect cup of coffee to be prepared. There is no drip tankard: each cup of coffee is brewed when it is ordered, carefully attended to, and served fresh and hot.

The coffee is relentlessly delicious, and incredibly strong. The dishware is made locally by Heath Ceramics, and is satisfying to hold, even when not filled with hot coffee - though it is even better when filled with hot coffee. The sculpture garden is a peaceful refuge from the busy streets below, with a broad expanse of sky between buildings, a lovely close up of the gorgeous Pacific Telegraph building behind it, and views of construction cranes to the southwest. There are plenty of benches, and even when it is breezy, it is easy to find sheltered spot to sit and people-watch.

Near the cafe is one of my favorite sculptures by Louise Bourgeois: The Nest, a grouping of protective, ever-larger spiders hovering over smaller ones. I hope I am as cool an artist as Ms. Bourgeois when I am a grown up. I'm also fond of Mario Merz's Lens of Rotterdam, which is new to me.

I'll be spending more time here.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)4:47 PM

Friday, June 12, 2009

More good reads

  I was entirely too aware when I last posted a list of books I had recently written that all three of the books I listed where by white men. This is the sort of thing white men themselves tend not to notice, but it struck me as strange. The odds that a multi-racial-yet-pale SF gal like me would read THREE consecutive books by white guys is quickly explained by the fact that I was on a sci-fi bender, and that I have white guys recommending books to me. But still. It seemed odd.

Of course, this only makes me think of the website, which is thoroughly entertaining. Currently on display is item 126, Vespas. A sample of why I like this site:
Within white culture, your choice of transportation method says a lot about you. For example a Prius says you care about the Earth, a bicycle shows you REALLY care about the earth, and a bus shows that you are probably not white.
[Those of us who are not (completely) white and who ride the bus must pause to finish laughing before reading on, because it continues to get funnier.]

Anyway, I have three more books to report on, and this time around the mix of influences upon me is more apparent.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer is an absolutely stellar collection of short stories. It is the sort of collection that makes you stay up far past your bedtime, because you cannot put the book down, or even pass your stop by several train stations. Each story is about a different character: coincidental with the theme of this blog post, each primary character is a black woman.

The collection is a pleasure to read, and has deservedly won a ton of awards. She now lives in the SF Bay Area, because that is what writers do.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine is a graphic novel set primarily in the SF Bay Area. I had seen it in every bookstore I have visited recently, likely because it is a NYTimes "notable book," and finally caved in and bought it. It is a slice of life drama about an increasingly negative, 30-something Asian guy, who can't figure out why he is alienating everyone around him.

You know this guy.

I'm not asking you to name names, here: I'm just saying that you know someone like him.

The entire work is very well observed - the gestures, the expressions, the dialogue... it is as true to life as the melodrama you heard on BART this morning. And that look that Miko gives Ben after she tries to get him to come to bed, and he says he is watching a movie and isn't tired, and she clarifies that she isn't talking about sleep, and he insists he wants to watch the movie... I have lived this exchange. I didn't even know guys were capable of SEEING that look, let alone understanding it and drawing it this well.

I recommend this highly.

Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (Love & Rockets) by Jaime Hernandez is a massive, hardcover collection of Love & Rockets comics centering on best friends Maggie & Hopey. It has some of my favorite episodes (like Music For Mechanics), but so much more... It is an amazing collection. It will take me weeks to finish reading it, largely because I love to really look at Jaime's drawing style in detail: the way he models people, especially in low lighting, is just amazing. The story telling is great, the characters are lovable, and the drawings are so engaging... This is a treasure.

The thing that these books have in common with most books I recommend, including those written by white guys, is appealing, substantial female characters. It is a secret ingredient that makes books rock.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:10 PM

Not quite silver lining

  The heavy overcast of recent days isn't all bad. On the way home from picking up my new glasses Thursday night, I looked down Sloat toward the Farallones, which were beautifully back lit. The sea was teal-gray, the sky was dark gray, and the long, thin rectangle of sky was a warm, baby-aspirin orange. It positively glowed.

I almost shook the girl beside me to make her look.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The blog that I feed

  mosaic arrow, Lake Merritt BART stationI've been... under duress in recent weeks, and very tired. So I am backlogged with notes about my future things consumed blog entries, but simply can't stay awake to write them out properly.

The blog I'm feeding on the go is, my iPhone photo blog. It's a visual diary, and I post images there regularly, the same day I take them. You can tell quite a few things about what I'm up to just by looking at it. If you're a local, you can try to figure out where I took the images (a popular pastime, considering some of the questions I get).


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:12 PM

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