Choicelessness

Books Every Futurist Must Read

Posted in books, culture, hobbies, technology by johnsnavely on November 2, 2011

I’m a big fan of science fiction. I read plenty of novels for pleasure, but I’m also constantly trying to find good ideas to steal from books. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with co-workers about which books we thought every futurist needed to read. That’s a pretty tall order, what came to mind were all the books that I’ve recently stolen ideas from. They’re not great literature necessarily, in fact some are rather pulpy (which I love), but all of them have some great concepts in them. Here’s a short list in no particular order.

via Alyssa B.

Old Man’s War
Scalzi is a fun and funny writer. I just finished Agent to the Stars one of his earlier novels. In this novel he imagines a future where the elderly leave earth and are given new bodies and amazing technology to fight an interstellar war. James Cameron must have read this before making Avatar. Some ideas I want to build: Brain Pal and Emotional Instant Messaging

Kiln People
Brin’s novel is a hard boiled detective story. It’s set in a world where people can make copies of themselves, with limited expiration dates and then inload the memories of those copies. The whole concept of parallel lives in this novel basically changed how I understood social networking. Now, when anyone says they want to add “Social” (ugz) to a project I wonder how I can make it more like this novel.

Diamond Age
This book was recommended by a friend. For some reason we were talking about how little cultural groups form and joking about a “Helvetica Tribe”. The Illlustrated Primer, a “magic” book, is artfully done. I keep returning to it as an example.

Neuromancer
Gibson’s book has been at the top of many of my lists for a while. Almost everything he’s written about in the novel has come true in some form or other.

Ghost in the Shell (1,2, and 1.5)
These graphic novels are works of art. They’re like a Donna Hathaway’s gorgeous nightmare. Machines and people are melded seamlessly and you can never tell the difference between a robot and a human.

Mary Poppins (the movie is pretty good too)
A shout out to the Berg folks. I read all of these when I was very young. (As well as the whole Doctor Doolittle series.) In today’s world, you expect the newest gadget to do something amazing, these books which use magic bluntly applied to the everyday, without the slickness of technology. I’ve been coveting Mary Poppin’s mirror and her endless carpetbag.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
In Cory Doctorow’s book, nobody dies and a band of people lives and works in an abandoned DisneyLand. Also, there is no money, only reputation points called “Whuffie”– it’s an idea sort of stolen from eBay but it’s evolved into something better here. I’m trying to unify “Whuffie” and “BitCoin” in my brain.

Fermata
This is one of Nicholson Baker’s early softcore novels. Many of his books dilate time in one way or another, but in this one it’s quite literal: the main character can stop time. The story is both sexually explicit and remarkably boring. Often when I’m thinking about new amazing technology, I’ll try and ask myself how the main character in this story would use it.

Currently, I’m reading “Super Sad True Love Story” which was recommended to me as a book that every futurist must read. Any other suggestions?

Culture Shock

Posted in books, culture, movies by johnsnavely on February 18, 2010

Last night I watched half of District 9. I probably should have watched it sooner.

It’s the story of a white man, sent to investigate (infiltrate) an alien culture, with the ultimate aim of relocating (or eradicating) that culture. Eventually the man finds himself a member of that culture and must battle against his former friends and colleagues who wish to oppress his new found community.

If this doesn’t sound remarkably familiar, then you haven’t watched Avatar.

Now Avatar is a steamy pile, but it has been dipped in golden technology and buffed with Cameron’s millions. It’s pixel perfect. But I couldn’t help to compare the two movies.

In my mind, they use the same plot but for very different ends. Avatar is about fantasy and escape– which is why people are getting depressed with reality after watching it:

In District 9, however, crossing a fictional cultural divide is about shedding some light on our own cultural problems and proclivities. That’s not to say Avatar hasn’t inspired some District 9 like repercussions/reinterpretations: Witness a Palistinian protest in full Naavi costume.

I’ve been leaving my Lamour obsession behind and getting back into science fiction. I’ve just read Snow Crash, started Steal Across the Sky, and am rereading a collection of Phillip K. Dick’s short stories (including Minority Report). I enjoy science fiction because like Avatar it offers fantasy and escape; but I come back to it because like District 9 it tells me something about the world I live in, or in the best case will live in.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness presents a similar dilemma of a man struggling to integrate with an alien race. Only this race has no concept of “he” or “she” for the majority of their lives. The main character’s difficulty in understanding the world he’s faced with is written in such a way that we (the reader) have the same trouble picturing what these aliens look like or how to understand what their interactions mean. Only partway through the novel, do we realize that the main character is black. There are all these shorthand ways of “understanding” that can be rooted in our pre-configured notions of gender or race.

I think I might need to re-read the book just to more fully understand the fashion world’s current obsession with androgyny, which by and large, I think has produced some pretty creative designs.

Anyway, now that I’m reading again. Do you (gentle & few) readers have some suggestions?

Frontiered

Posted in books by johnsnavely on November 19, 2009

I have made it a personal goal to read every novel that Louis L’ Amour has ever written. It may sound like a daunting task, since L’Amour has written over ninety books. But given that they each are only about 150 pages, it’s like running a marathon in kilometers. (Also, apparently reading pulpy trash novels from days of yore is “trendy” these days.)

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One thing is difficult. I’d like to keep track of what I read. I only buy these novels at used book stores and thrift shops and therefore, I’m not reading them in any sort of chronological order.  I have managed to get by by remembering cover art, but since each edition had a different cover design. Add to that fact that L’Amour often reused plots and characters and it looks like I might be reading a lot of doubles if I’m not careful.

Since I’m pretty much the worst organized person in the world, how can I do the least amount of work and still have a record of all the books I’ve read? (Maybe I need something like Pivot?)

Miner, Bronc Rider, Friend

Posted in architecture, books by johnsnavely on August 2, 2009

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I went to the thrift store the other day to pick up a baking pan. While I was there I decided to get an inexpensive refill on Louis L’Amour paperbacks. At 65 cents a piece, these little books are meant to be consumed by the stack, but I am really enjoying these low budget Westerns.

After reading Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and a review of Pynchon’s new book in the New Yorker (and another review in The Stranger) I get the feeling that noir is back to being a stylish repository for real intellect. (Whoo!)

Seriously, from the review it sounded like Pynchon (Pynchon!) has written a novel that’s like The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and a little Easton Ellis (the west coast Ellis) all rolled into one. I’m pretty excited to read it.

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Maybe the Western has already been played, but somehow I see it making a similar stand. There are characters, tropes, and story lines which could play nicely when modernized. (I wish the guy who made Brick would make a Western…) And I wonder, if I decided to make a building that was in the style of one of these Louis L’Amour books, what it might look like.

The Other Side

Posted in art, books, personal, projects, thesis by johnsnavely on January 2, 2009

I’ve been working on more of these Gilgamesh things. I thought before I would print them, I could publish them online somewheres. But it would be nice to have something more artsy (ahem) than a photo gallery.

Luckily, I found this great little AS3 library for making “books” with flex.

Here’s one book I made with my thesis (5mb…wait for it) warts and all!

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It’s pretty depressing to see how many mistakes I’ve made… archived forever in MIT’s stacks. Double ugz.

Auto Raves

Posted in books, culture, programming, technology by johnsnavely on December 13, 2008
Cover of Gibsons Neuromancer

Wikipedia: Cover of Gibson's Neuromancer

In a recent conversation, Johnny Lee mentioned (and I think he was referring to Desnee Tan‘s work) that sensors could be all over the place and still not give us all the information we need. For example, we could have a camera in our car but it might be hard to recognize with computer vision an “accident” ahead. But if we placed sensors on someone’s body we might be able to record their heartrate or adrenaline as they “sensed” the accident ahead. We could sense of lot of information through the body.

The first thing I thought of in the back of my mind was Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Billed “Artificial Artifical Intelligence”, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk basically provides an interface and market for people to divide computationally complex tasks into small Human Intelligence Tasks. For example, if you come up with a question that fits a given statement, you’ll get $0.03.  Spammers have used this service to bypass the “test” to see you’re a real person on blogs and forums.

But one big problem with Turk is that the HIT’s generally require conscious effort, which is slow and time-consuming for both Workers and Requestors…  I think you see where I’m going here.

People hooked up to sensors could “automatically” be turked, selling data gathered subconsciously (thanks for the link T). For example, I want to do a quick test of a new ad campaign. I flash the ad up to some Workers. They just look at it for a second. I gather bio-feedback. And we’re done! They get some pennies in their accounts. I get results instantaneously.

The whole thing feels sorta Neuromancer-like, which means it’s probably going to happen.

Caps Off to David Foster Wallace

Posted in books, technology by johnsnavely on November 8, 2008

I have been thinking about this part of Wallace’s Infinite Jest so gosh darn often these days, that I thought I’d literally rewrite part of it here– just give myself a fresher memory to pull from. Here’s the beginning. Copied verbatim. (DFW, you are sadly missed. There’s one less genius in the world.)


WHY- THOUGH IN THE EARLY DAYS OF INTERLACE’S INTERNETTED TELEPUTERS THAT OPERATED OFF LARGELY THE SAME FIBER-DIGITAL GRID AS THE PHONE COMPANIES, THE ADVENT OF VIDEO-TELEPHONING (A.K.A. ‘VIDEOPHONY’) ENJOYED AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITY- CALLERS THRILLED AT THE IDEA OF PHONE-INTERFACING BOTH AURALLY AND FACIALLY (THE LITTLE FIRST-GENERATION PHONE-VIDEO CAMERAS BEING TOO CRUDE AND NARROW-APERTURED FOR ANYTHING MUCH MORE THAT FACIAL CLOSE-UPS) ON FIRST-GENERATION TELEPUTERS THAT AT THAT TIME WERE LITTLE MORE THAN HIGH-TECH TV SETS, THOUGH OF COURSE THAT HAD THAT LITTLE ‘INTELLIGENT-AGENT’ HOMUNCULAR ICON THAT WOULD APPEAR AT THE LOWER-RIGHT OF A BROADCAST/CABLE PROGRAM AND TELL YOU THE TIME AND TEMPERATURE OUTSIDE OR REMIND YOU TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD-PRESSURE MEDICATION OR ALERT YOU TO A PARTICULARLY COMPELLING ENTERTAINMENT-OPTION NOW COMING UP ON CHANNEL LIKE 491 OR SOMETHING, OR OF COURSE NOW ALERTING YOU TO AN INCOMING VIDEO-PHONE CALL AND THEN TAP-DANCING WITH A LITTLE INCONIC STRAW BOATER AND CANE JUST UNDER A MENU OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS FOR RESPONSE, AND CALLERS DID LOVE THEIR LITTLE HOMUNCULAR ICONS- BUT WHY, WITHIN LIKE 16 MONTHS OR 5 SALES QUARTERS, THE TUMESCENT DEMAND CURVE FOR ‘VIDEOPHONY’ SUDDENLY COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT, SO THAT BY THE YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADILT UNDERGARMENT, FEWER THAN 10% OF ALL PRIVATE TELEPHONE COMMUNICATIONS UTILIZED ANY VIDEO-IMAGE-FIBER DATA-TRANSFERS OR COINCIDENT PRODUCTS AND SERVICES, THE AVERAGE U.S. PHONE-USER DECIDING THAT S/HE ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOW-TECH BELL-ERA VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER ALL, A PREFERENTIAL ABOUT-FACE THAT COST A GOOD MANY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-TELEPHONY-RELATED ENTREPRENEURS THEIR SHIRTS, PLUS DESTABILIZING TWO HIGHLY RESPECTED MUTUAL FUNDS THAT HAD GROUND-FLOORED HEAVILY IN VIDEO-PHONE TECHNOLOGY, AND VERY NEARLY WIPING OUT THE MARYLAND STATE EMPLOYEES’ RETIREMENT SYSTEM’S FREDDIE-MAC FUND, A FUND WHOSE ADMINISTRATOR’S MISTRESS’S BROTHER HAD BEEN AN ALMOST MANIACALLY PRECIPITANT VIDEO-PHONE-TECHNOLOGY ENTREPRENEUR…AND BUT SO WHY THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICE-ONLY TELEPHONY?

The answer, in a kind of trivalent nutshell, is: (1) emotional stress, (2) physical vanity, (3) a certain queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the micro-economics of consumer high-tech.


You’ll have to grab the book (or borrow it from a friend, as I did) to read the rest.

It’s worth it!

Count Your Loaves

Posted in art, books, projects by johnsnavely on October 5, 2008

Got back from Cambridge earlier this week. It was a bit of a whirlwind; I wish I could have stayed longer there were people I wished I could see and people who I saw who I did not spend enough time with.

Anyway, I’m up late and sleepless. I enjoyed making those posters so much before that I thought I would give myself a little exercise. 2 hours + quotes (taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh).

Great words, I just gave them a font. (Close ups are here.)

Pears, Ploughman

Posted in books by johnsnavely on September 9, 2008

In a fit of binge reading, I finished Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin in a delirious 24 hour period. It was good, much better than Rainbows End.

Anyone who enjoyed Ender’s Game would probably enjoy book too. I’m reading the sequel now (Axis) and, like Speaker for the Dead, it’s pretty enjoyable but not of the same caliber.

Spin starts with an event. One night the stars and moon “go out”. In the morning the sun rises, but it’s not the sun. It’s a flat disc that radiates the same heat and moves at the same speed, but it isn’t the sun. Earth finds itself trapped in a strange membrane that mimics the usual conditions, like a giant terrarium, with one critical difference. Inside the membrane time passes normally. Outside the membrane time is passing at an alarming fast rate, years per second. Our solar system will end in 50 years: the real sun will nova and engulf the Earth. Who did this and why? (Some of these questions will be answered by Martian Pharmaceuticals.)

This is isn’t Steinbeck, but if you like science fiction it’s a really fun read.

Wearables and Usability I.V

Posted in books, technology by johnsnavely on August 13, 2008

Aside: How did Romans do decimal points? (bars and commas? Maybe that’s why the empire fell…)

I just finished reading this graphic novel called Tekkon Kinkreet last night and I want to post that instead of usability. So here’s my beef with “usability”.

It’s a natural part of the design process to question assumptions and even break rules. Far too often I see usability clamping down on a design long before it’s anything interesting to make usable. Many years ago, my former boss, Steve Gano, surprised me in a discussion we were having about how to visualize some scientific data in a flash interactive. I called up some of Tufte’s rules and he responded by handing me a stack of books with diagrams, graphs, maps, and visualizations that didn’t fit Tufte’s model, but were beautiful and legible all the same.

“Usability” is often treated as if it’s an absolute concept, a certain UI is inherently more usable than another. But in fact usability is based on a number of subjective and relative factors. People constantly come up with new ways to use things and new things to use.

Anyhoo, I finished Tekkon Kinkreet last night and I enjoyed it a lot.

The book is a loose coming-of age story of two street kids named “Black” and “White”. Black is slowly becoming an angst-y teenager prone to outbursts, moroseness and violence. And White is a prototypical giddy Japanese kid, whimsical, hopeful, and also prone to violence. They live in a carnival city populated with garbage, bums, yakuza, and corporate sleezebags. And it’s all drawn in a very beautiful artoonist style.

The story itself is fairly simple, but it manages to avoid being juvenile, a problem that most graphic novels never solve. (Another solution might be to relish puerility. Lost Girls, which I also read over the weekend, does this with aplomb. It was so bad it belonged in MOBA, a distinction which might mean that the book has gone full circle to come round to genius. Anyway, if you ever wanted to see an “erotic” graphic novel that looked like it was drawn by a 12 year old girl with color pencils, you should check it out.)

Back to Tekkon Kinkreet. The storyline is simple, while the characters and drawing style are pretty unusual. The clothes in the novel are odd animal suits or strange leotards. And, although much of the story takes place perched up on roofs or telephone wires, the buildings have an odd circus quality to them, leading one to believe that the setting is sometime in a fantastical, perhaps mildly dystopian, future.

Once I finished the book, I checked to see when it was published: 1994!

Honestly, this is more evidence that comics are one of the last remaining forms of worthwhile pulp and, as such, are strong indicators of trends in visual production (art, movies, etc) in the future. At my last visit to the comic store, I realize that there were lots of books here that if I didn’t buy, I would never see again. With a few exceptions, they aren’t in libraries or online. It’s a pity, really.

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