28 February 2008

The Growing Importance of Folklore

With publication of Pollan's In Defense of Food, I think we are seeing the emergence of folklore into the mainstream. Most people think folklore is something they have very little in common with. It is old fashioned music or people dancing around in costumes they wore hundreds of years ago. People feel it has very little relation to their lives. They also believe that we live in a scientific, rational world and somehow folklore does not belong. There is also an association between myth, legend and folklore as meaning fraudulent, fantasy, lies. This is a problem of perception and mis-perception, which is not new. Shortly after becoming literate, the Greeks abandoned and ridiculed their own folklore, the "myths" we read about today.

For a new perspective on what I call "folk knowledge" or what might be categorized as "folk culture" instead of folklore, since it is more correct and encompassing, we need only look to authors like Adrienne Mayor. Through long, independent research, she discovered that the ancient Greek myths about monsters were actually stories about people finding beds of fossilized bones of ancient creatures. These "geomyths" as they are called convey, real, true, factual information and represent a kind of scientific method even preliterate people engaged in, despite conveying them in a dramatic way.

In Pollan's book, food culture or food ways, as a folklorist would call them, represents knowledge that the best scientific nutritionists failed to see, take advantage of and learn from. The nutritional systems which evolved out of thousands of years of trial and error passed down by mothers through the generations, amounted to a better set of food choices than did a hundred years of scientific rational nutritionism.

In books like Blink, Albion's Seed and Stuff of Thought, we are beginning to see how our unconscious knowledge and folk knowledge shapes our decisions and opinions, sometimes without our knowledge, absorbed by osmosis through our culture. Frequently, this knowledge proves more accurate and useful than scientific rational knowledge, especially when the science is new, incomplete and arrogant, such as nutritional science.

If you don't think you participate in folklore or that it has a place in the modern world, take a look at Sadobabies, a film about urban homeless kids. Or Music District, a film about urban music. Everyone creates folklore, everyone lives in a folk culture, in reality, many folk cultures, for each folk way is a folk culture, you probably practice a food way, a work way, a everything way. You also build new ways out of old ones, from both things learned from your parents and neighbors and scraps of commercial culture. Rap is a folk culture. Commercial rap feeds into rap, and the folk culture cycle goes on. At work, if you are a programmer, you probably learned many things that are not in books on coding. This is "programmer lore" and is a folk culture and represents folk culture, which shapes the software we use in daily life, that controls elevators and space shuttles. If you don't think folklore affects your life, think again the next time you're riding an elevator.

Reading In Defense of Food

I am reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food. I had just reached the end of his forward when I was struck by one of the closing paragraphs, which says that eaters have real choices now thanks to the revival of local farms and farmer’s markets, which make practical the availability of whole foods. I had to stop, the words echoing in my mind, because they were incredibly resonant with what myself and Tom Davenport are doing at farmfoody.org, reminding us that our health, the health of the land, the health of our food culture are inextricably linked.

I continued my reading and came to the point where Pollan relates the story of dentist and amateur scientist Weston Price, who abandoned his practice to study the food culture and nutrition of various aboriginal peoples around the world, untouched by the Western diet. Price concluded the common denominator of health among these peoples was, as Pollan says “to eat a traditional diet consisting of fresh foods from animals and plants grown on soils that were themselves rich in nutrients.”

Tom and me believe that the survival of small, independent farms is dependent on leveraging their local characteristics, just as wine makers leverage terroir as as an argument for the uniqueness of their wines. It is not a stretch to believe, as Pollan does, that the richness of the soil has an influence on the nutritional richness of food. Price’s description mirrors that of the small, independent farm supplying the local area with food, which was common before the second world war.

Moreover, Pollan writes that Price believed that “by breaking the links among local soils, local foods, and local peoples, the industrial food system disrupted the circular flow of nutrients through the food chain.” I am not sure about the disruption of nutrients, but it is those broken links we wish to restore by making some new links of our own, linking local soils, local foods and local peoples together again through social networking.

As I turned the pages, I discovered another passage that resonated with our intuitions about linking together the land, food and people though locality, food and culture using the technology of the 21st century. In the latter half of In Defense of Food the author lays out rules of thumb for escaping the Western Diet, but before doing so, he observes that food does not consist of nutrients alone, but “comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reaching back to the land and outward to other people.” Our hope this is exactly what our website will do, create a web of social relationships reaching back to the land and to other people, through the farms and foodies, sharing their pictures and their recipes, a little bit of who they are with each other.

That is as far as I’ve got, but with farmfoody.org, Tom and me want to enable people to create, sustain and nurture change in our food culture, because we believe that a healthy society and a healthy people is a product of nurturing a set of relationships with food, the natural world and people.

17 February 2008

The Tomato and the Grape: Whole Foods, Terroir and the Independent Farm

"It's very hard to make money selling whole food." says Michael Pollan in a talk given at the Free Library in Philadelphia on the 10th of January 2008 about his new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and available as video through C-SPAN BookTv. He explains whole foods are not as profitable as processed foods because the whole food cannot distinguish itself from other foods in the marketplace. There is nothing special about plain oats to make them cost more. By processing the oats and packaging them in a way that distinguishes them from ordinary oats, the profit is higher because people are willing to pay more for a unique product. Independent farmers face this problem every day, but there is a solution.

An idea developed through centuries of French winemaking based on observations of the special characteristics bestowed on individual wines by geography. The term denoting this special characteristic, which no other wine could claim even if made from the same grapes, is termed terroir, which loosely means "sense of place." If the concept of terroir could be extended to all whole foods, it would then be possible to distinguish one whole food from another creating competition among producers of whole foods. This is what happened to French wines, with wine of one terroir becoming more highly prized than another, thus producing a higher profit than a generic wine. Applied to farming, it becomes possible to distinguish a heirloom tomato from the regulation, perfectly spherical, artificially red, tomato in name only served up at fast food joints and found in supermarkets.

This has already begun to take shape in an ad hoc and unvoiced way as the remaining independent farms become boutique farms, selling high end produce to sophisticated farm stand buyers and knowledgeable chefs at gourmet restaurants. Survivors of the agricultural contraction seen during the last century have implicitly adopted the idea of terroir. This idea of adapting terroir to farming came up frequently in my discussions with Tom Davenport over the last two years during the planning of farmfoody.org, our social networking site for farmers and foodies. He was insistent that the idea of terroir be incorporated in some way into our site, tirelessly pushing for the development of features involving geographical location.

16 February 2008

The Honest Truth

While looking for some tips on good writing, I found a page on how to make writing more concise by substituting awkward or redundant phrases, such as "after" for "after the conclusion of" or "near" for "in the vicinity of."

I noticed "honest truth" was on the list. I could see why on its face this appears to be a redundancy. Taken literally, there should be no difference between the "honest truth" and the "truth" given there is only one truth.

I do not believe this is a mere redundancy (unless used by habit in as a cliche) but an expression of mutual knowledge. If you've read Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, you will understand how important mutual knowledge can be in human affairs. When we say "honest truth" we are acknowledging there is a public truth, a conventional truth everyone must acknowledge, and a private truth we all know is reality. The "honest truth" is a warning to everyone within earshot: I am about to reveal unspoken mutual knowledge.

Pinker also discusses how human language contains a model of time different from the mathematical or physical one known to science. A meeting can have an "end" and a "conclusion" the period leading up to the end. So it does make sense to say "after the conclusion" speaking to the period of winding down toward the actual end of the conference. I suspect many phrases exist to express these shades of meaning, which emerge from phenomena like mutual knowledge or the shaping of time.

14 February 2008

Bodhidharma's Shoe: Zen Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala Monastery

Tom Davenport, filmmaker, has released part one of his video Bodhidharma's Shoe: Zen Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala Monastery.
Part one of a two part documentary on an American Zen retreat at Bodhi Mandala Monastery in New Mexico. A seven day intensive retreat is called a "Sesshin" which means to bring the heart/mind together. The experience of a sesshin is transformative and intense, but there are dangers -- both physical ones ( I ruined my hip, for example) as well as spiritual ones (like believing that the Zen Master is a saint or a god). Zazen of this intensity changes you and a lot of good flows out into the world from it (as long as you take yourself lightly and have a sense of humor). But requires that we (the sangha) all support each other. I doubt that anyone could do this alone.
Tom Davenport, a old timer at Zen in America, who got a lot of help from his friends, tells the story of a novice's entry into zen, and says of the experience "...thinking back to those days, we did not really understand what we were getting into..." The video is on Revver.com because of the higher quality video. Or YouTube if you prefer:

Bodhidharma's Shoe: Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala PART ONE

Bodhidharma's Shoe: Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala PART TWO

Bodhidharma's Shoe: Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala PART THREE

Bodhidharma's Shoe: Sesshin at Bodhi Mandala PART FOUR (END)

Sorry about the links, but some controversy erupted over the film and I will have to get back sometime to correct the links.

13 February 2008

Using OM Lenses on Olympus E-System Cameras

Although this is not a new topic to the members of various internet forums, the new inexpensive DSLRs introduced in the last year are bringing a significant number of lapsed film photographers into the DSLR marketplace. Many old OM-System shooters, who owned OM-1's and OM-2's back in the 1970s (Lucky you! I made do with the closest alternative for a small light weight camera, the classic Fujica ST-605, which will always be close to my heart). There are a lot of young photographers who see the OM lenses sold on ebay and wonder what it's like to use the old manual focus, fix focus lenses.

To use OM lenses on your E-System camera (E-510, E-410, E-1, E-3, E-330, E-300, E-500 as of this writing), I have posted a brief illustrated article on how to mount the adapter, where to get one and some hints using the OM lenses.

12 February 2008

Thoughts on the 4:3 Format and Golden Rectangles

I have a suspicion the near 4:3 ratios of the traditional photographic print sizes (probably based on traditional canvas sizes, but I am unsure of this...it seems likely) emerged due to a concentration of photography on portraiture in its early days and that photography adapted the canvas sizes used in painting, which very likely emerged out of portraiture. I am not entirely sure of this, but it seems reasonable to assume the majority of traditional paintings, as painting emerged in the Renaissance as an important feature of Western art, were portraits at first. The landscape I assume is a later invention as nature began to be seen less of a threat to life and more as an enjoyable extension of human space. We have to remember that nature, i.e. the forest, was a terrifying place for our ancestors and only in the 19th century did the modern conceit of the 'pastoral' emerge. So I hazard that most paintings were portraits. I doubt many of the first patrons wanted paintings of the landscape, they wanted paintings of themselves.

So, I conclude from this the 4:3 ratio may be ideal for portraits. Despite it not being as close to the golden rectangle as 3:2 format. This many explain why photographers who love 4:3 often speak of the difficulty they have with portraits using 3:2 format cameras and why landscape photographers say they prefer the wider 3:2 landscape. It may not be that there is _one_ ideal ratio for all images, but that there are ideal ratios for different _types_ of images. I remember my own struggles using a 35mm camera (3:2 aspect ratio) to take portraits, trying to frame the subject head and shoulders, either getting too much ceiling or too much waist in the finder. The 3:2 ratio frame is just too tall and narrow to comfortably fit the human head and shoulders, which may explain why 8 x 10 and other close to 4:3 ratio forms were favored in painting or early photography.

I would have to learn more about the size frequencies of traditional Western paintings before the 19th century to know for sure.

It is interesting to note 8 x 10, 5 x 7, 11 x 14 all are closer to 4:3 and are also the traditional photographic print sizes in the United States, which emerged in the 19th century with photographic print making and plate (glass negative) sizes. The one exception is 11 x 17, which is 1.54 and very close to the golden rectangle. I do not know how prevalent this size was as an enlargement in the 19th and early 20th century, but it seems to be rare. The 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 were the most common sizes from the mid-19th century to mid-20th century, up to the 35mm camera boom from mid-century to end of century. In the box camera era, many millions of snapshots were small, R3 or R4 I think they call it, 3 1/2 x 5 or 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches.

8 x 12 is close to the golden rectangle (12.94 / 8.0 exactly). I always thought the 11 x 14 was an odd size, but seemed to be commonly used in the 35mm days for enlargements, but is very far from 1.6, very distant from 8 x 12 since the nearest golden rectangle is approximately 8 x 14 (9 x 14.56)! An interactive golden rectangle calculator is available at

I always felt the pull to use the whole 35mm frame. It was just natural. I do not know why, but I loved to frame my compositions using the full viewfinder and hated to crop my images to the traditional sizes. I hated the enlarger frame used to hold the paper down with its fixed print sizes. I wanted to get one with sliding frames so I could choose print sizes like 8 x 12, but there was also the problem of obtaining paper in non-traditional sizes. I had some color prints made later in 8 x 12 after the influence of 35mm point and shoot cameras began to make prints and frames available in the 8 x 12 size for a while in the early 1980s. I used (horribly non-archival) "frameless" frames that sandwiched the 8 x 12 print between a piece of Masonite and glass and appeared to hang magically on the wall. Nothing interfered with the image I had seen through the lens at the moment I chose to trip the shutter. It was only later I learned that Cartier-Bresson had claimed using the whole 35mm frame introduced some special 'magic' to image making. I'm still not convinced he was not pulling our collective leg. There are images that 3:2 butchers and images that it helps.

It was just my style to want to see through the lens and then capture what I saw without thinking about cropping. I still prefer to print my 4:3 images (from an Olympus Four Thirds camera) 9 x 12 inches because I have always found 8 x 10 induces a "claustrophobic" feeling, where slightly upsizing to 9 x 12 gives the image room to breath and a feeling more like the 8 x 12 for some reason. It may have something to do with human visual perception, that as an image gets larger, it encompasses more of the visual field of the eye and "wideness" becomes less important.

An interesting question is when shooting in a 4:3 format, how does the "non-goldenness" of the frame affect compositional elements placed at or the frame divided by a golden rectangle? What happens when a 4:3 ratio rectangle is divided by the 3:2 ratio? We are told that an interesting property of the golden rectangle is if a section whose side is equal to the shortest side is marked off, a new golden rectangle is formed. So the frame is a golden rectangle and at about the third of the longest side is another golden rectangle, which is about equal to photographer's rules of thumb to place the horizon line at thirds vertically. Also, the "rule of thirds" points are about where the golden rectangle would place them. Does the 4:3 disturb the relationship between the outer frame and these golden divisions of the frame?

This is all mostly speculation based on intuition and memory, so don't take it as gospel but as a starting point for thinking about aspect ratio and composition.

01 February 2008

Drafts of American Zen

Independent filmmaker Tom Davenport has been working on a film exploring the daily rituals of zen practice during a meditation retreat. The film contrasts a series of drawings about zen monastic life in Japan many years ago with images from current practice in the United States. He has posted drafts of his film in segments on YouTube.
  1. American Zen Part One
  2. American Zen Part Two
  3. American Zen Part Three
  4. American Zen Part Four
Weaving the old drawings through the daily life of zen practice helps the uninitiated feel comfortable with the mysterious happenings depicted in the film. The depiction of a novice's entry into this mysterious world helps us feel secure entering it. Seeing the events and people depicted in the drawings match those before our eyes gives us a sense of continuity. Between the narration and the exotic but familiar scenes, the film goes far to dispel the mystery of zen practice and acquaint the viewer with the history and practice of zen in America.

The internet has made it possible for people to see filmmakers at work, like the way one can watch glassblowers working at the local craft fair, out in the open as they work their miracles where everyone can see. Whoever is interested in filmmaking, can watch the process or participate in the debate as a film is edited. Whether that is a good thing or not, I will leave to posterity to decide, but it is one more way in which the network changes they way things are done.