Processions, Night, And Fire

Fire-acrobatsI have experienced two deeply impressive nighttime events that combined a procession, fire, and a sense of mystery. One was the Christmas Eve Procession of the Virgin at the Taos Pueblo. In preparation for the procession, conical towers of wood up to two stories high were built throughout the plaza, and after sunset these were set on fire. The heat they produced was incredibly intense, melting the snow and  frozen ground and sending fantastic spirals of smoke and steam swirling into the night air. The plaza was filled with fire, smoke, and hundreds of people. Then the church doors opened, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was carried out of the church and around the plaza, with guards firing their guns into the air (using blanks) to frighten off evil spirits. The combinations of cold and heat, night and fire, and Catholic and Native American traditions made a magical impression. (Visitors to this procession are forbidden to take photographs, but you can see an evocative photo of it here.)

The photo shown at left here is from another magical event: the Tucson All Souls Procession, which blends elements of Catholicism and carnival with the spirit and imagery of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. In 1990 a local artist organized a small procession to honor an artist friend who had died. Since then the procession has grown to an annual event that attracts 20,000 people.

Much of the charm of the small original event remains. Local artists participate and create interesting visual objects, which contrast greatly with the cliché-ridden kitsch that typifies so many American parades. Many of this procession’s “floats” have a dark edginess. Examples include an ominous pterodactyl whose wings span much of the street (a clever sculpture on a rolling steel frame), and vehicles that appear to have been pieced together after an apocalypse.

Carly-makeup Many of the people who come to watch the procession wear costumes and makeup, making the crowd an essential part of the experience. The photo at left shows my teenage granddaughter Carly in the makeup she wore to attend this year’s procession. You don’t have to wear costumes to attend, but being in the presence of thousands of people whose costumes and makeup evoke the dead is a remarkable experience, and it’s fun to join in.

Fire-potsThe procession changes each year, and some years the presence of fire pushes the experience into something otherworldly. The onlookers join the procession, which moves along a street that goes under a WPA railroad bridge. One year women dressed in Grecian costumes stood on the pedestals of that bridge, each of them holding aloft a flaming torch. Along the bridge dancers were swinging flaming pots on chains, making circles of fire. Looking at these strange apparitions above us as the street dipped down, with a little imagination it felt as if we were descending into the underworld.

The procession ends in an open space, where there is some sort of entertainment. Shown here from the 2009 procession are costumed acrobats on stilts, and a fire-pot twirler in the foreground.

I suspect that we have a visceral reaction to nighttime rituals that include fire and strange costumes: a reaction that links back to prehistoric rites that took place by firelight. If I, as an adult, can find my imagination inflamed by strange-looking creatures emerging from dark, smoke-filled shadows into the unsteady light of bonfires and burning torches, imagine what a lasting impression such a scene could make on a child. If stagings such as these were involved, no wonder so many of our ancestors believed that magical powers were real.

[Photos of the All Souls Procession by complicity. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

The Seductive Smell Of Escape

Escape to a tropical island has long been the promise of travel ads featuring glamorous scenes of beaches, palm trees, and hammocks. Now it's apparently become a fashionable promise for mass-market products none-too-subtly selling the way they smell. (To see larger photos, click the images.)

Glade hammock ad spread

And while Old Spice has gone viral with its over-the-top manly man ads, its packaging isn't as tongue-in-cheek.

Old Spice
Note that both Old Spice versions promise to make you smell like freedom.

Wind Turbines And High-Speed Rail: The Allure Of Green Techno-Glamour

Economic Way of Thinking wind turbines When Robert J. Samuelson published a Newsweek column last month arguing that high-speed rail is "a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause," he cited cost figures and potential ridership to demonstrate that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn't justify the investment. He made a good, rational case—only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph the magazine chose to accompany the article.

The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. It was the kind of image that creates longing, the kind of image a bunch of numbers cannot refute. It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous.

The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads for everything from Aveda's beauty products to MIT's Sloan School of Management. These graceful forms have succeeded the rocket ships and atomic symbols of the 1950s to become the new icons of the technological future. If the island of Wuhu, where games for the Wii console play out, can run on wind power, why can't the real world?

Policy wonks assume the current rage for wind farms and high-speed rail has something to do with efficiently reducing carbon emissions. So they debate load mismatches and ridership figures. These are worthy discussions and address real questions.

But they miss the emotional point.

To their most ardent advocates, and increasingly to the public at large, these technologies aren't just about generating electricity or getting from one city to another. They are symbols of an ideal world, longing disguised as problem solving. You can't counter glamour with statistics.

Read the rest at

For future writing, I am still collecting examples of  glamorous wind-turbine imagery, particularly when it's used not to represent literal wind farms but to suggest such ideas as innovation, progress, and optimism. If you've seen such examples, please make a note in the comments below.

[Cover image from The Economic Way of Thinking, 12th Edition, an excellent introduction to economics that has little to do with wind turbines.]

Quick Impressions

Emily-didonato Chances are the moment you saw this photograph you instantly had an opinion about it: whether you felt the model was beautiful, whether her red lipstick looked stunning or overdone. Studies have shown we form initial impressions surprisingly quickly. At Northwestern University researchers found that when they tested listeners by letting them hear tiny samples of music, the listeners were able to classify different styles of music based on samples lasting only 250 milliseconds. A half-second sample added only a little more accuracy, and with a sound sample lasting a second most listeners could classify every style of music they were familiar with. This is an astonishing finding, because it suggests that we use timbre, the character of the sound, to quickly do most of the work when we are identifying musical styles. 

This ability to form quick impressions is an extension of our survival skills, stemming from the need to assess sights and sounds that might indicate the presence of danger, or a friend, or an enemy. These quick impressions can of course be mistaken, but without the ability to form quick impressions our ancestors could not have survived. 

Those of you who have watched Project Runway or The Fashion Show know that you decide almost as soon as the model walks onto the runway whether you think her outfit is attractive. Later, you sometimes think the judges are crazy to like an outfit that you immediately found unattractive. If we watch an awards show in which music, film, and TV stars are trying to look glamorous, we take one look and quickly decide if we think they have succeeded or failed.

Emily-dinato2 The model in the photograph above is Emily DiDonato, a relatively new model who has been featured in several recent Maybelline ads. The photo at right shows her with little or no makeup. For a chance to form other quick impressions, look at DiDonato made up in strikingly different ways herehere, and here. If we were to imagine each image as our first impression of her, then our initial reaction to her might be quite different.

Understanding this allows us to see why some religions have been suspicious of makeup for centuries. When we see an image of Emily’s face, within milliseconds we have evaluated her appearance and formed an initial impression about her as a person. When her makeup changes she instantly appears to be different—perhaps even a different kind of person. This is horrifying if you believe that people should present only one face to the world. But, if you believe that we play different roles in life, and that we should have the option of presenting ourselves differently, then the ability to dramatically change our appearance in various ways seems liberating and fun.