Choicelessness

Octodog

Posted in books, technology by johnsnavely on August 2, 2008

I’ve had a glut of sci-fi recently. K and I have been listening to Gibson’s Spook Country on audio book over dinner. So far the most notable thing is how deep the narrators voice is…

Last weekend, I went to Elliot Bay books and basically hung out in the chess, design, and sci-fi sections respectively.

I bought a chess book. Not a famous one. A book for beginners, really.

I couldn’t afford the design book, New Retail, a Phaidon book on new retail spaces. Although, I wanted it and I might have been able to have the company pay for it. It has some pretty futuristic interiors, but with drawings, so I can see how they space plan. This is for work…

Also, I did buy two sci-fi novels. Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, recommended by T– Since I enjoyed Gun with Occasional Music (a hardboiled noir set in a biogenetic menagerie of a future) so much. I haven’t started this one yet.

And Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. I had just finished a collection of Nebula winning short stories, poetry, and criticism from 2006. Vinge had this great short story: the poorly titled The Cookie Monsters which told the tale of a few “enslaved” AI’s becoming self aware, but realizing they had no cultural memory except for a single, very limited “cookie”. I really enjoyed it; it had shades of Philip K. Dick’s short fiction. Unfortunately, the book, which I am about a fifth of the way through, hasn’t got it’s hooks into me. Since it’s set in the near future, much like my job, you’d think there’d be something there.

Something about the book is irking me. I hestitate to complain– One, because I’m not sure I could write a better novel. (However, writing a sci-fi story is something I’d really like to try.) And two, because complaint and criticism are blog cliches.

Anyway, I started this posted wanting to complain about two things both can be expressed as single words, and both deserve to be put in quotes since I don’t take them seriously:

“Wearables” and “Usability”

But now, it’s late and I’m falling asleep…

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Hyperbolized Ambiguity

Posted in architecture, books, technology by johnsnavely on April 19, 2008

This is my first post from Seattle! I’m in company housing in Kirkland. It’s pretty posh, in a corporate way, but I’m comfortable and adjusting well.

Today’s treat is a little video from Erika Janunger a student at the Konstfack College of Art and Design in Sweden. It’s a little cheesy, nothing you haven’t seen before in music videos etc. But the video is elegantly done and starts to radiate a few ideas.

Before I left and on the plane over here I finished up a few more sci fi books. Blade #1 The Bronze Axe was pretty fun. That and Black Legion of Callisto, both from the 70’s had the same odd (over compensating) take on masculinity… although the idea of the Omnicompetent Man has been in sci fi for quite a while.

I also read a collection of short stories from Frank Herbert. All written in the late fifties and sixties, presumably while he was writing Dune. They all show an obsession with bureaucracy, politics and economics that when done right is like reading an issue of The Economist from the future; and when done wrong is painfully bad. The first story, which is good, is called “The Master Saboteur” and features a multi-bodied, multi-gendered race. It was written in the late sixties… about the same time that Ursula K. le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness was winning the H&N awards.

What’s so exciting to me in these examples is seeing gender-hyperbole being played out in pulp, while gender ambiguity happens in the “mainstream”. (I use quote because this is sci-fi, still.) I realize that this might be news to me only because of my straight male ignorance, but I think it might be evidence of other cultural polarities which can play out in a single genre.

Comestibles

Posted in art, books, fashion, programming by johnsnavely on March 23, 2008

First, an addendum: The Van Cliburn YouTube competition is for 35 and older only. Double poo! My praise has been redacted.

As reward that I had been planning for a very long time, K and I had dinner last night at TW Food. It was restaurant week in Boston, but their special menu was so abbreviated, that it seemed a travesty not to hit the seven course Winter Grand Tasting. We tapped that. It was the best meal I’ve had in a looong time. Three hours of delicious food and great wines. Awesome.

In other news, Chessgames.com has updated their viewer. Now, while watching a game (like a movie), you can pause and play out different lines of the game yourself, in the position of Byrne or (sigh) Bobby Fischer. I wish more media experiences incorporated the idea of the “choose your own adventure”.

A long time ago, when I worked at AMNH, we recorded a fly-thru in the known universe with cue-points that allowed a user to get off the “spaceship” and look around. (Not the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made, but an interesting experiment.) While this type of thing may be considered a “non-linear” narrative, the novelty of the experience is actually how the user would construct a very linear pathway through the interactive. In fact, the user wants linearity as much as possible in order to organize and understand what they are seeing.

These days we’re brainstorming a project whose main conceptual twist is an audio and video with two seperate narratives. The video is an idealized world; the audio, the purgatory of a mundane life. The problem with fashioning such a “non-linear” (or duo-linear) narrative is that a viewer automatically tries to rectify the two stories into a single understandable story. For example, showing a radio alarm clock, but playing a ringing bell, makes the viewer think that there’s another alarm clock off-screen; not that the audio might tell another story.

Even as it’s foiling my plans, there’s something fascinating about this desire for single, linear, understandable narratives. According to K, Ricoeur has a crapload to say about Time and Narrative. I guess I have some reading to do. In the meantime, here’s a lovely quote that aptly describes what low brow books I am actually reading.

Then, too, narration includes prophecy in its province to the extent that prophecy is narrative in its fashion.
Paul Ricoeur

Continuing my quest to have some sort of aesthetic position on “the future”, I’ve been reading a fair amount of science fiction. Of course, the reading list includes the Hugo-Nebula award winners, but also some pulpy losers from the 60s and 70s. The fonts, graphics, and yep, even the writing are nuts.

A Hugo award winner, for instance Dune (one of my favorite books– and Lynch films– of all time), has one of the traits of a timeless work of art, namely that it is timeless. Reading it today, it is as fresh and unusual as when I read it 15 years ago.

Sci-fi pulp, on the other hand, is of its time, and has many recognizable idiosyncrasies of the culture, time, and place in which it was written. Perhaps this just creates some sort of hot tranny mess, but maybe, when we’re looking to sample styles, the obviousness of these expressions is an asset. (Prada’s gorgeous new look isn’t about the subtle 70’s.)

Mötley Crüe

Posted in art, books, movies, technology by johnsnavely on March 14, 2008

Just read a sci-fi book called “Blindsight“. I’m not going to do a great job with a plot synopsis or anything so here’s a killer quote stolen from the Wikipedia entry.

The book has been described by Charles Stross as “Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story from the point of view of a zombie posthuman crewman aboard a starship captained by a vampire, with not dying as the boobie prize.”

It’s a pretty good book. Since it’s released to the public under the CC license, I read it on my laptop all in one 7-hour glorious sitting. Reading a whole book online for the first time, I finally might see the reasoning behind getting one of those digital books.

Anyway, as part of my job, I am often asked to think about “the future”, often, in particular, the future cast as a technologists wet-dream. Sometimes it’s called “trend analysis”. I’ve been looking at advertisements and concept movies out there and a lot of it looks very similar. Using a watch as phone has been an idea since the days of Dick Tracy. And yet, it still seems to be a big deal to Ideo and Nokia.

So in search of unusual ideas, I’ve been looking at sci-fi as background research. Peter Chung’s old Aeon Flux(s) might have some ideas worth keeping.

The Long Goodbye

Posted in art, books, movies by johnsnavely on February 29, 2008

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’m adjusting to a new life of no school.

Meanwhile, 64squares is down. I’ve just finished the first season of the wire and am starting the second. And my instinct is to sympathize, not with the police or the hounded dealers, but with the poor junkies who will not be getting their fix because their website is down and the product has dried up.

Yesterday, I read Shane. I had read it when I was a kid and loved it (and the movie). It’s a classic western with all the cliches you’ve ever heard. But reading it again was really fun. It’s short and elegant. The main character is a gunslinger-in-denial trying to find peace who ends up being forced back into his violent past. (Seriously, I could hyphenate that entire sentence.) There are guns, but he (Shane) fires three bullets in the entire story. And that’s all he needs to do. On a similar note, I assume you’ve all seen this:

I’ve been pretty fascinated by Americana recently. Although, I’m not even sure what Americana is. The other day, I saw a beautiful set of “Illustrated Classics” in the comic book store in Harvard Square. They looked lovingly (and by that I mean authentically) trashy. Moby Dick and Last of the Mohicans were both represented. Moby Dick Illustrated ClassicBack in Middle School, I remember these novels as being formative tomes in my construction of what it meant to be American, or what it must have been like. The Western, and the Hard boiled detective story, the (Illustrated) Classic add up to something, but I don’t know what it is.

Over on his site, Bryan’s been talking about kitschy stuff and the currency of image for his awesome thesis redesign of the capitol. Although some of his cynicism is probably apt, I wonder if we couldn’t suspend skepticism here or there and find something worth keeping. At some point, kitsch is our culture. We’re only hurting ourselves with this rambunktious (sic) behaviour (sic). Last year, Edith shared this great quote by Kundera on kitsch:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass. It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

Last year, I took a little road trip for a week by myself with my dog. It was boring, mostly. There’s a lot of highway out there. I stayed in Motel 6’s (they take dogs) and wasted gas and found a classic rock station in whatever state I was in.

I was filling up at a gas station off one of those trick exits that make you drive out into the woods to find fuel. Across from me, two young, beautiful girls were getting gas for a beatup white old porsche. I think they were driving to New York City. They were laughing or something. We drove off in different directions. That scene in Lost in Translation flashed through my mind. And I felt very old. But also confused. Is it really this way? So cliched? Or does it feel this way because, thanks to Woody Allen movies etc, it’s supposed to feel this way?

It’s so easy to keep cliche at a distance…until one works for you and you’re helpless. It seems a beauty like that we might aspire to make more often.

Early Work on the Grand Canyon

Posted in art, books, graphicnovels by johnsnavely on November 17, 2007

I was in a used bookstore yesterday looking for more graphic novels and I found a book by David Macaulay called “Great Moments in Architecture“. You might remember Macaulay as the illustrator of books like “Mosque” and “How Things Work”. There’s some really nice moments in the book: the ruins of a gas station, early excavation of the Grand Canyon, and an inflatable cathedralm, all illustrated in a sketchy Piranesian style.

I bought the book for a couple reasons. First, it was published in the 70’s the beginning the pomo achitecture’s golden age. As such, it’s a great reminder that my ideas are really nothing new, a lot of people have been thinking about this stuff for a very long time. Secondly, I bought the book as a gentle reminder not to screw up. When the illustrations are good, they’re funny and beautiful and you want to build them. But when they’re bad, they read like a Farside comic. (by Gary Larson, AIA) Ugz.

A dirty secret: this is probably one of about five architecture books I own. I’ve got a copy of Oppositions that I stole from the NYPL and some random books from the Details series. But mostly, I’m thoroughly uneducated/unread. Now you know not to play Humiliation with me.

I also bought “The Story of O” to add to my collection. The introduction which compares the novel to Sade’s Justine starts to ask the right questions: how do you place this book into some sort of historical or cultural context, while acknowledging how much of an anomaly it [still] is? It’s never the novel that feels dated so much as the criticism. I can tell immediately when the response was written, but the novel itself seems outside of identifiable social cues.

I like the freaks, yes I do.

But this is for another post about another kind of graphic novel.