ConExpo, equipment porn & the N.J. Turnpike

Not a robot: This Rotating Multi System has powerful jaws used in demolition.

The kinkiest scenes I saw last week in Las Vegas involved huge shiny trucks and the (mostly) men who love them.

ConExpo-ConAgg and IPPE 2011 is the largest construction industry trade show in North America. It is held once every three years with similar events held in off years in other countries. For 2011, this was THE construction event of the year. It ran for five days, March 22 through 26, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It drew more than 117,000 attendees, with 24 percent coming from 150 countries outside the United States.

Insiders call it “equipment porn.” From portable rock crushing plants bigger than my house to tiny ball bearings, every piece is showcased, primped and pimped.

Too much to see. Too few places to sit.

ConExpo, as it is known, filled the convention center and spilled over into its parking lots. According to a pressroom handout, more than 2,400 exhibitors spread their wares and services over more than 2.34 million net square feet of exhibit space. Having walked it for days, those figures seem low.

I walked through exhibits before the show opened and watched vendors with small brushes hide scratches on a contraption that creates firebreaks and logging roads by charging through forests to cut down large trees and then grind them into chips on the run. This machine faces a rumble-tumble off-road future, but last week it was a pampered beauty queen.

ConExpo draws a mostly male crowd.

Treads that fit a fist on shoulder-high tires for an articulated dump truck were buffed with furniture polish. Finishes throughout the yellow spectrum were touched up and wiped down to gleaming perfection, windows made spotless and metal shined. I saw not a spot of grease on the acres of carpet where the hardware was shown.

The beauty and details were duly admired and vendors reported sales. The atmosphere was optimistic.

Portable rockcrusher plant bigger than my house.

If it sounds like a lot of money is involved, you’re right. The boost in U.S. industrial activity has not been matched in construction, but there are bright spots. Exports of American-made construction machinery totaled $16.4 billion in 2010 for a gain of more than 28%  over the previous year, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. Meanwhile, private non-residential construction spending in January was $244.4 billion, the lowest amount in six years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

I spent the week walking until my legs hurt and thinking of how I had never before had

A few of the cranes on display.

appreciated the variety and value in construction equipment. From the window of my hotel overlooking the convention center, I counted 68 cranes on display in parking lots but I fear that is an undercount caused by the density of criss-cross arms. Each crane was different and each was specialized from servicing wind turbines to handling long reaches with enormous loads.

After I returned home, a family chore took me south on the New Jersey Turnpike. Between Exits 5 and 7 work is under way to add two lanes in both directions.  As my husband maneuvered through lane shifts and avoided concrete barriers that replaced highway shoulders, I looked knowingly at the earthmoving equipment and cranes. I saw different forms, shades of yellow and not a single machine without severe damage to its paint job.

I spotted many now familiar brands, like CAT, Komatsu and Grove, and I appreciated the diversity as I can honestly say I have never done before.

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Long-form journalism has a future

As breaking news headlines exploded in Japan, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere, ProPublica on Wednesday night held its first live event, “Long-Form Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World.”

A panel of journalists representing different media and different business models but bound by livelihoods of telling stories thoroughly and well, agreed that there is a future for long-form reporting. Here, insert a sigh of relief and the link to the video.

“Long-form is absolutely not dead, what is dead is bad long-form,” Stephen Engelberg, the managing editor of ProPublica, told the audience that packed the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. He recalled the days of monopoly newspapers that presented  “take it or leave it” investigative pieces by “stacking one fact on top and they would be endlessly dense and they would be unreadable.”

“In this world we do not have that option,” he said. “If we would try at ProPublica to present complicated stories that way, no one would read them and they would have no impact and we are about impact.”

“The new era of all these choices tends to crowd out badly done, poorly executed journalism but that’s not so bad,” he said.

The 24-hour news cycle “is not innately bad,” said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, which recently published a 24,000-word piece on the Church of Scientology that most in the audience indicated they had read. “I don’t think one knocks out the other.”

Engelberg interjected that “one enhances the other.”

“The world is a crazy, beautiful, ugly, complicated place and it keeps moving on from crisis, to strangeness, to beauty to weirdness to tragedy,” Remnick said. “The caravan keeps moving on. The job of the long form-writer, filmmaker or  radio broadcaster is to stop, is to pause and when the caravan goes away, that’s where the good stuff comes.”

For example: Engelberg said he has read many accounts of what is happening at the Japan nuclear plants but still doesn’t understand it; “I’m waiting for that long-form story, that New Yorker piece, that piece with drama and characters, to put it together for me.”

Raney Aronson-Rath, series senior producer of Frontline, said that her PBS show deals with much-reported topics like the unrest in Egypt or the disaster in Japan by stepping back, finding an original angle of vision and writing more knowingly. “You’ve seen this but what you didn’t know, was that what was happening at that time was X.”

What does it take to be a long-form journalist? No formulas were revealed.

“Great stories happen to people who can tell them,” said Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life.

Long-form journalism requires  “different planes of regard and angles of vision,” Remnick said. His advice was to “read endlessly” and to examine how affects are achieved by “reading like a writer” – a lesson he learned as a college student from a class taught by John McPhee, who he now works with. “I don’t understand people who want to be writers but don’t really read very much.”

Reporting is “the least romantic thing” and “a lot of shear labor” that requires a “willingness to go at it and at it and at it” to seek out a specific interview or fact, Remnick said. “Without that kind of dumb stubbornness – do something else.”

Engelberg said that when hiring he looks for people who can think critically, write in a way that moves him and puts no stock in formal journalism training.

“Start making stuff” is the advice Glass offered. He said he developed his skills by asking others to review his work, sometimes taking them out to dinner or outright paying them. He said $100 could get a helpful critique, representing a big savings from graduate school.

Alison Stewart, the moderator and co-anchor of PBS’s Need To Know, asked about paying for lengthy reporting and editing projects.

“Money is actually the biggest threat to long-firm journalism,”  Stewart said,  noting that former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati once said a cover story could cost $40,000. She went on to say her own year-old show is threatened by funding cuts being considered in Congress.

Aronson-Rath said changes in technology are “saving documentary filmmaking.”  Television is still expensive, she said. but being able to transform journalists into directors and producers is a “fundamental economic shift.”

“One of the more exciting things for me in the last few years is watching the new generation of reporter who is into filmmaking actually doing the filmmaking themselves,” she said.

Technology does not cut costs everywhere.  Engelberg said that in investigative work, which can take many months to produce, “$40,000 is cheap, cheap, cheap.”  ProPublica, a nonprofit, has worked on projects with both Frontline and This America Life.

“What we are seeing as the industry is rearranging itself is people pulling back from that,” Engelberg said. He said that when he began working at The Oregonian, there were 420 editorial employees and today there are less than 200. “You can’t do the same work with half the number of people particularly when you are asking them, by the way, to do twice as much.”

“I do not believe at the moment that I see a for-profit venture that can do what we do with 19 reporters and make a large profit from that,” Engelberg said.

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Journalism tips from Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof sat down on the TimesCenter stage Wednesday and answered questions about covering uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times and two-time Pulitzer winner who has been described as an Indiana Jones of journalism.

Journalists, however, don’t need a passport to connect with how Kristof gathers news. First, get out of the office to see for yourself. Then, talk to people.

Kristof said he was in Davos, the site of the World Economic Forum, watching television reports of the growing protests in Cairo when he decided he had to go to Egypt. While flights leaving Egypt were full of people fleeing the country, incoming planes were mostly empty except for “people with huge cameras, pretending to be tourists.”

Journalists who have covered forest fires and hurricane landfalls know that scene. Everyone else on the road is evacuating while you’re headed in with cameras, laptop, batteries, bottled water and a box of energy bars. It’s a bit like hiking through the woods to reach the overturned tractor-trailer that has stopped two miles of traffic on the interstate. Everyone else just wants to get out but you are drawn to the center.

Also recognizable: Be skeptical of both sides. “Victims actually lie just about as much as perpetrators,” Kristof said. All reporters know that’s true.

Nothing is straightforward, whether it’s a dispute in a small town or a bloody uprising. It’s a matter of scale. Kristof’s examples were more extreme than you’ll find on most beats, but at the core is the fact that you “have to be as skeptical of people being shot as you are of people doing the shooting.”

Journalists need boldness and inventiveness to get some stories but sometimes all you have to do is start talking and asking questions. (I have found a deep breath helps.)

“It’s astounding the degree to which you can interview murderous thugs if you walk up to them and say: “Hi, I’m a reporter,” Kristof said, with a laugh. He went on to recount a story about doing an interview near Tahir Square while a nearby “goon was sharpening his straight razor.”

Kristof’s comments came during a conversation with Carla Anne Robbins, deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times. The interview was part of the TimesTalks series and was conducted March 9, 2011.

Kristoff offered insights on events that were changing as he spoke.  “Uncertainty” is how he characterized what will proceed stability in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya. The same word applied to what’s next for other members of the “Dictator’s Club.”

Despite eyewitness reports of wounds, razors, thugs, goons and clubs studded with nails, Kristof is cautious and says the most important thing is to come back alive. In a June 2009 video, “Covering a Global Crisis,” about staying safe and accurately reporting a global humanitarian crisis he advises “never argue with people with large guns.”

That video includes reporting tips that apply to all venues: “find a person to drive your narrative, to tell your story,” do your homework and “double check, triple check, try to verify it in every way you can.”

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Newspaper Art & The Armory Show

Colectivo Aninat & Swinburn

The Armory Show in New York City, March 3 to 6, is a major international exhibit of contemporary and modern art. Its debut in 1913 introduced a shocked audience to Europe’s most daring innovators — Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Brancusi, Gauguin, Braque and Kadinsky.

The show no longer fits into its namesake, the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 26th St. It is now held on Piers 92 and 94 over the Hudson River.  The shock of “Nude Descending a Staircase” in the isolationist period before World War I cannot be repeated, but there is plenty to surprise, puzzle and delight.

Pae White

I’m not an art expert, but I can spot newspapers.  I made a scavenger hunt from my ability to spot newspapers.  Here is what I found to be the current state of newspaper art, drawn from the contemporary material on Pier 94. In contrast, the abundance of newsprint included on several walls covered by Robert Rauschenberg’s pieces in the modern portion of the show on Pier 92, made me wonder if the heyday of newspaper art is over.

Most of the examples are appropriation, in this case meaning the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work. Think: Music sampling in hip-hop and rap. For instance, Isabel Aninant Galeria de Arte from Santiago, Chile, displayed two photographs by Colectivo Aninat & Swinburn of a woman’s eyes behind headlines connected by straight pins. In one photo, the woman’s eyes were opened and in the other, her eyes were closed.

Wei Dong

Another appropriation example was Pae White silver stencil on distinctive pink pages of the Financial Times. Given her choice of the FT, I was not surprise to see that White is represented by a London gallery, Greengassi. Of all the contemporary newspaper artists I spotted, White got the most attention, including mentions in The New York Times and Art Fag City. She is also in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.

Aristarkh Chernyshev

The newspaper hat seen in Wei Dong’s “Beside the Girl #1” is not appropriation. It is an element of a story this 2011 painting is telling , but I don’t know what that story is.  Normally, newspaper hats are fun or, at least, neutrally utilitarian. Only a detail of it is shown here, but the painting portrays a young woman wearing only that hat and a gas mask, which serves as a g-string, is surrounded by military figures.

What does the hat represent? What’s with the drips of blood? I hope she is not a detained journalist. Wei, by the way, is represented by the Nicholas Robinson Gallery in New York, where an exhibit of his new work is on display.

Gabriel Vormstein

Aristarkh Chernyshev’s piece titled “Urgent (Newsbin)” does not include a newspaper but it does has headlines. It is artwork as commentary on the news. Artinfo said that Chernyshevn is mocking journalists by suggesting that the news profession belongs in the dustbin, has described as “info sculpture.” Designboom describes a similar piece as an info sculpture “that explores the modern phenomena of information overload.” Just like the news zipper at 1 Times Square, headlines move through the sculpture into and out of the dustbin. They read like genuine news headlines about Afghanistan, the economy, jobs and other issues. Accounts of this work said the headlines were from a real-time Internet feed but the stream on Saturday, March 5, carried the date of March 3, the day The Armory Show opened. Perhaps that was the lack of wifi at the piers. The piece was displayed by the XL Gallery of Moscow.

Richard Dupont

Newsprint of the appropriated variety showed up in Gabriel Vormstein’s “Smog,” a 2011 piece from The Breeder gallery in Athens. Here, newsprint is part of a multimedia piece but Vormstein often uses newspapers as his canvas for his paintings. The struggling newspaper industry would benefit from more artists like Vormstein.

The ephemeral nature of newspapers is shown by its rescue from dustbin for inclusion along with other detritus encased by ployurethane resin inside the head that Richard Dupont presented as “Amnesiac #2,”  which was in the booth of the Carolina Nitsch gallery of New York.

Mark Manders

This last work is included despite its title.

The newspaper of “Still Life with Books, Table and Fake Newspaper” looked real to me. The sculpture is by Mark Manders, who is represented by the Zeno X Gallery of Antwerp, and lists its material as wood, painted epoxy, painted canvas, iron, offset print on paper. What looks like a piece of newspaper is visible only on the back of the sculpture. The front of the sculpture shows a partial view of a woman’s face and is far more attractive than the back.

And in the huge cavern of Pier 94, that was all I saw.

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Blog not dead

Here’s another new blog that starts off at a good pace and then halts.

Is that what you’re thinking?

White lilies: not just for funerals.

I have a good excuse. My father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s but ultimately succumbed to kidney failure, died Friday and I’ve been caught up in the before, during and after and a good bit of emotion. (For posterity, that would be Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.)

Expect more.

Meanwhile, here’s a tribute to white lilies, which my mother always associated with the unpleasantness of funerals. Each week, I buy one stem — looking for the one with the most buds — from the Korean grocer around the corner. The flowers are beautiful, last the week and their perfume brightens my day.  A friend, who knows this, sent a bouquet that meant more than the roses and orchids I received.

The fragrance of this lovely bouquet permeates into the hallway of my co-op. When I open my door, I inhale with enjoyment. Did you know loss of smell can be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease? Take a moment and smell the lilies.

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