Empty Videos: Where Have All the People Gone?

Imagine the busiest, most crowded place you know . . . in the middle of the day . . . but without a single person.

It’s hard to form that mental image, because some places are what they are because of all the people.

429575638_4d0c1b16da_zWhile we were living among the 6 million people of Taipei, all we had to do was stand at the corner of a major intersection to get a feel for how dense the city is with people—on foot, in cars, in buses, on bicycles, and on scooters . . . so, so many scooters. That’s what made it so shocking when once a year, a seemingly random (at least to a foreigner) military drill chased everyone off the streets. In fact, during the half-hour Wan-an drill (萬安演習), all vehicles need to pull over, and it’s illegal for pedestrians to be outside, except for the officers stationed at nearly every corner telling everyone to vacate the streets.

In 2004, Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung saw this in person when he was in Taipei to film an MTV show. When the streets cleared, Cheung and his record-company crew thought they’d found the perfect backdrop for a photo shoot, so they snapped a photo of Cheung standing out in the street all alone. When the photo hit the Internet, the National Police Agency was not amused, and they promised a fine (though I’m not sure if they followed through).

There’s something about seeing places that are normally teeming with people when they somehow become un-teeming. It’s oddly alluring. Or maybe its just odd. Or eerie. Think ghost town, the Apocalypse, The Day After, or The Day after Tomorrow.

But thanks to some video wizardry, we don’t have to survive Armageddon to see what the world would look like without people. Take, for instance, Ross Ching’s vision of Los Angeles in Running on Empty (Revisited). At Vimeo, he even offers this step-by-step process for how to remove all the cars from the highways of LA:

1. Record for 20-30 mins.
2. Go frame by frame and grab pieces of the road that aren’t obstructed by a car. Eventually, you will have every piece of the road.
3. Put the static image of the road in with the moving background.

And then there’s the Empty America series from Thrash Labs, including New York, usually a pretty busy place in its own right, and Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco.

The music in these videos takes away some of the eerie feeling that can come with the visuals. That’s not the case with para l l el, a short film from the globetrotting French couple Claire & Max. Their music choice is “Dark Places.”

“What if parallel worlds existed?” they ask at Vimeo. “What if in one of these worlds mankind disappeared? What if the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty had never existed?” (Their vision of London is pretty creepy, too.)

In case Ching’s step-by-step instructions for creating an empty world seem a bit simplistic, Claire & Max provide their own how-to video tutorial. It’s step-by-step-by-step-by step. In their list of needed items, the last one is patience. Indeed.

Or you can pretend that You Are Legend, and you’ll have all the time in the world.

(Jimmy Chuang, “Pop Star’s Photo Op During Air-Raid Drill Could Net Big Fine,” Taipei Times, September 26, 2004)

[photo: “On Your Mark,” by h4rrydog, used under a Creative Commons license]

Sites of New York

New York. The City that Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. The Melting Pot. The Capitol of the World. The Center of the Universe.

I’ve never been there, but it’s on my bucket list. I want to see first-hand the diversity, the culture, and the people.

Until then, I’ve got the Internet.

Most of you have heard of Humans of New York, the wildly popular photoblog and book created by Brandon Stanton. It’s a captivating collection of portraits and stories. In the video below, Stanton talks about the appeal of his work:

I think, you know, we walk down the street and we see all these people and we kind of wonder about their stories, the celebrations and the victories, and that’s what people are engaging with.

Humans of New York got me thinking. What other of-New-Yorks are there out there?

Here’s what I came up with:

Voices of New York (CUNY)
“The best journalistic work being produced by scores of community and ethnic publications,” curated by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. It currently is featuring such stories as “Diversity in Korean Language Schools,” “Remembering the Earthquake in Haiti,” and “Guyanese Artist Tells an Immigrant’s Story.”

Voices of New York (NYU)
This site, from New York University, is an archive of findings from the Fall 2001 students of the class The Language of America’s Ethnic Minorities. It’s a look at how distinct language groups in New York are being maintained or being lost. From “The Irish,” here are Nicole Feder and Chiene Joy Jones:

Coming off the train in Woodside, we had all kinds of fixed notions of what a typical Irish person would look like and how they would act. While sitting in the subway car Chiene turned to Nicole and said, “I bet he’s Irish, lets ask him if he is going to Woodside.” We played into those stereotypes of pale skin, reddish hair, light eyes, and drinking all the time. Feeling ridiculous for making such speculations, we decided not to ask and eventually reached our destination. While in Woodside we met several people fitting into various categories of the stereotypes. It wasn’t until we walked into an Indian owned Deli that I realized how easy it would be to categorize people. When we asked the owner why he had so many Irish products in his store, he replied, “You should know better than I, you’re Irish. . . .”

The Many Languages of New York City
In 2012, Arun Venugopal of WNYC reported that only 51% of New Yorkers are English-only speakers at home. A graph in the article shows the languages that are spoken. Another set of graphics, from Andy Keirsz at Business Insider last year, shows a map of the most-spoken languages in New York (“Here’s the Most Commonly Spoken Language in Every New York Neighborhood that Isn’t English or Spanish“).

Endangered Languages of New York
The New York based Endangered Language Alliance is “the only organization in the world focused on the immense linguistic diversity of urban areas,” including the 800 spoken in New York, many of which are at risk of extinction.

Bookstores of New York
Last Year cartoonist Bob Eckstein of The New Yorker shared his drawings of his favorite bookstores in the city, along with anecdotes from store keepers. Of Three Lives & Company he writes, “Any time a book is bought, the entire shelf must be reordered, since no books of the same colored spine may be adjacent, lest they appear erroneously as a set.” And just as New York has its endangered languages, so it has its threatened bookstores. “The Endangered Bookstores of New York,” is the title of Eckstein’s followup collection.

Museums of New York
From ny.com, here’s a long, though probably not exhaustive, list of the city’s museums. But if you want THE Museum of New York, you’ll need to go the Museum of the City of New York, where you can see exhibits such as Péter Forgács’ Letters to Afar, an art installation made from home movies filmed by Jewish immigrants who traveled back to Poland in the years preceding the Holocaust.

Loneliness of New York
In a city of 8,336,615 people, you can be “lonely, but never alone.”

Doors of New York
Graphic designer Allan Markan has collected images of doorways in the city and published them in the book Door Jams: Amazing Doors of New York City. You can see samples of his images at his website. They are pretty amazing.

Windows of New York
Another graphic designer, Jose Guizar, has put together his illustrations of windows in the city that have caught his attention. Colorful and creative.

Parades of New York
Here’s a list of NYC parades arranged by month, from MustSeeNewYork. Coming up next on the calendar, The Lunar New Year Parade.

And last, but not least . . .

Streets of New York
I thought this was just a movie, like Gangs of New York, but it’s a pizza, pasta, and sub restaurant. Mmmmmmm. I can already taste those authentic flavors of NYC, located a convenient 2,400 or so miles from Times Square . . . in Arizona and Nevada. (It took me a while to figure out the location. The fact that they serve “the official pizza of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns” was my first clue.)

Hyper Realism: A Russian Farmer Lands an Esquire Cover and a Trip to New York

9168908261_6e344e2bb4_n
Evan Penny’s Old Self, Variation #2, an example of hyper-realistic art

Ever since, as a child, I saw Duane Hanson’s lifelike sculpture Janitor at the Milwaukee Art Museum, I’ve loved hyper-realistic art. Then last month, when I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, I was surprised to see another Hanson work, Man on a Bench. (I really was surprised, since it looked for all the world like a museum visitor taking a break from his tour.) And in a room close by, there was an oversized bust by Evan Penny, Old Self, Variation #2. Unlike with Hanson’s pieces, no one will mistake Old Self for an actual person—it’s only a head with shoulders, and it’s way too big. But still, it just looks so real.

Martin Schoeller is another artist in the same vein, except he doesn’t exactly create hyper realism, he captures it—with a camera. Born in Germany, but now based out of New York, Schoeller is best known for his “hyper-detailed” large-scale portraits of celebrities, which have appeared in magazines such as GQ, The New Yorker, and Entertainment Weekly.

But his photographic subjects also include common people, like you and me. In fact, if you’d like to see what you’d look like in a Schoeller portrait, next time you’re in Bed Bath & Beyond, do like I did and take a look at yourself in the 10x-magnification of the Zadro Dimmable Florescent Dual-Sided Mirror. (That’s hyper realism.)

Schoeller recently took a cover photo for Esquire Russia of Vasiliy Ilyn, a retired farmer from Russia, who’s featured in this month’s magazine. Ilyn is one of Schoeller’s non-celebrity subjects, as the September Esquire is devoted to the rules that govern the lives of ordinary Russians.

For three days, Ilyn was something more than ordinary, as he was flown to New York for the photo shoot. His encounter with the city is chronicled in the 20-minute film Vasily, from Stereotactic. (Thanks to Carla Williams for telling me about the video.)

The film shows Ilyn’s first trip outside the Kursk region of Russia, his first time to see the ocean, and, of course, his first visit to America. As he looks around New York, he’s a fish out of water, but he’s an ordinary fish. And I’m not sure that his reactions are much different from those many retired farmers in the flyover portions of the US would have.

Ilyn narrates the documentary, and he has a lot to say about Russia, the US, and life in general. He thinks of himself as a joker, but much of what he says shows a solemn acceptance of the way things are. He’s pretty straightforward and plain spoken. At one point, while talking about his disdain for past Russian leaders, Ilyn drops an F-bomb. Actually, it’s more of an F-hand grenade since we read it in the subtitles.

When he gets back to his home, he tells a woman about the 80,000 Russians who live in New York. “I wish a flood would come and they would die,” she says. “Let the locals survive, but these traitors should die.”

Ilyn replies, “They were just looking for a better life. . . . Let them go.”

Shoeller’s type of hyper-realism doesn’t come from a lack of preparation and artistic manipulation. The lighting and focus has to be just right, and there’s a lot of time spent on Ilyn’s makeup. But the result is striking for its unglamorized detail.

That’s the way the documentary looks to me, too. I can tell a lot of work went into the making of Vasily, but it’s that work—the shot selection, the editing, the scoring of the music—that makes it feel more real . . . much more real than what usually passes for “reality” on TV today.

(“Russian Farmer Lands in Esquire and NYC,” Voices of NY, October 15, 2013)

[photo: Old Self, Variation #2” by Nils Gore, used under a Creative Commons license]

Do You Hear What They Hear? Babies Are Listening Bilingually Even before They Can Speak

I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.

It seemed like sound reasoning to me.

42052685_df923ad167So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.

The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.

Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Mental Cartography

Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.

To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.

According to Kuhl,

The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.

This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.

Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.

It’s Never Too Early to Learn

According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.

Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”

Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.

Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”

While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”

(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)

[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

6 Sites for Great Global Photos

If you’re someone who likes good photography from around the world, here are six websites I’ve run across that will give you a daily or weekly fix. All are for your viewing enjoyment, and some are hoping for your contributions:

  1. National Geographic photo of the day
  2. National Geographic travel photo of the week
  3. Smithsonian Magazine photo of the day
  4. CNN travel photo of the day
  5. Condé Nast photo of the day
  6. Lonely Planet photo of the week contest

The accompanying photo is of the Empire State Building, named by Cornell University scientists the most photographed landmark in the most photographed city on earth. Number 2 on the list is London and Trafalgar Square, which, given the drawing power of the Olympics, is probably solidifying its position over San Francisco and Union Square, at number 3.

Go here for Budget Travel’s slideshow of the complete top-25 places, with tips on how to capture the best photographs of them.

[photo: “Sun Falls on New York City,” by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons license]