Dec 30, 2008

good fences

make good neighbours. this use of geolocation and RFID tags to create virtual fences for voracious kenyan elephants is brilliant! but really it was just an excuse to put up an old saw:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
our man Frost.

Dec 29, 2008


my efforts to avoid working on these papers reach new heights of creativity almost on a daily basis. today, i took a short run out into allston and discovered an abundance of ethnic produce. most of it was slavic, because i found an emporium dedicated to foods and beverages of the former soviet union (bazaar, if anyone's interested). it was the first time i'd ever seen 5-gallon jars of sour cherry compote or 24-packs of 2-gallon bottles of orange-flavoured kefir. the kefir pack was so heavy it had a label asking purchasers to alert a store employee to come by with a forklift. mystifyingly, there was an entire wall of assorted salts and sugars, all of which the nice (ukrainian) shelf-stocker said were the normal, unflavoured variety, as well as an entire section of milk imported from poland (i checked). the deli department also had sizeable pile of smoked sturgeon sitting in a chillcase next to a stack of salmon slabs. then i stopped in a dollar tree and was blown away (again) by the buying public's seemingly-limitless capacity to consume cheap crap. does anyone really want 10 pairs of giant plastic scissors that don't cut, in your choice of obnoxious neon colours? or a 100-pack of disposable christmas mantlepiece reindeer ornaments made of styrofoam covered in silver and pink glitter?

Dec 28, 2008

tara donovan at the ICA

after pestering miscellaneous individuals for months, i finally made it to the ICA today with hila, ariel, and hammer--just in time to catch the tara donovan show before it closes on january 4. her sculpture is usually made of prosaic materials (toothpicks, straws, styrofoam cups) but deployed in sufficiently enormous quantities that they lose that prosaic quality. the effect is amusing, deeply appealing, and wondrous. (here's her macarthur award citation.) time has a decent photo-essay that shows detail shots of her work, though the full effect of seeing her large pieces from afar is absent--most of the joy of approaching these works comes from the alienness of these shapes and forms from a distance, their familiarity of material only resolving when you get pretty close. exploring the materiality of things is what R&D art should be all about (for which, also see robert irwin's stuff).

i can't remember any sculpture i've seen recently either where the affect of the piece changes so dramatically and effectively at different scales of approach, except maybe the moss wall in the olafur eliasson show at SFMOMA.

detail of moss wall. photo from twi-ny on flickr.

my favourite piece from the ICA was haze which is not in the photo-essay; it is a wall of over a million plastic straws arranged horizontally. they'd been set down in bundles and allowed to spread out, contained only by the walls surrounding them. from a distance, the wall looked like a sheet of haze or foam; only when approached at a distance of 4-5 feet did the surface of the wall begin to shift, responding to even the slightest change of perspective. it was mesmerizing and delightful in the best possible way.

haze. photo from ace gallery.
detail of haze. terrible photo courtesy of ace gallery.

there was a wall filled with sheets of polyester film that really just defies description. from the side, it looked like an expanse of sandy material, but looked at straight on, with the light from the water-facing glass wall of the ICA coming from behind the installation, it became a random geometric arrangement of dark and light tan with the shadows of people behind the installation moving gently across it. there was a coral-like piece made of translucent buttons of various sizes epoxied together. ariel observed, accurately, that the thing looked permanently out of focus.

the piece that is probably the most photogenic, though without the chameleon-like quality of haze, is a ceiling-mounted installation of undulating topography made of thousands of styrofoam cups hotglued together. it makes you (or anyway it makes me) wonder why she doesn't try to use recycled materials more for this kind of thing.

untitled (styrofoam cups). photo from pace|wildenstein.

and we also had dim sum this morning. it is difficult--but not impossible--to have dim sum with jewish vegetarians.

Dec 26, 2008

laser discs

when i was growing up, there was a regrettable phase during which my extended family invested heavily in karaoke, including expensive equipment designed to play laser discs, a sort of giant CD with video. we made do with VHS. (VHS! but recall that this was the late 1980s, when even CDs were new and exciting. my first CD was Doctor Who: Variations on a Theme, trance and electronica based on the music of the television show. even for me that was a frighteningly nerdy purchase.)

for anywhere between $30 and $100, you could purchase an LD featuring an assortment of music set to lingering scenes of scantily-clad women, assorted decolletage, and long, slow, shots of tourist scenery completely unconnected to the lyrics on screen (the locations would be international for the pricey LDs, local for the cheap ones). this is an exemplar of the form:

karaoke lounges, of which there were no shortage, would have rooms full of filing cabinets stuffed with these giant discs and copious supplies of slinky women of negotiable affection as well as hard liquor of questionable quality and exorbitant price. if you called it XO and put it in a hennessy bottle, someone would throw down a couple hundred dollars for a personal bottle to be stored in a glass-fronted cabinet just inside the doorway with his name (women never, ever did this) prominently displayed, for the benefit of patrons wondering casually who the real premium folk are. in every one of these bars i went to, the case was arranged not alphabetically but in order of bottle price. at the top of the case would be the decanters full of hennessy extra-special VSOP (running well north of $1000, given the lounge mark-up), their cut-glass facets glinting in the spotlight trained upon them for that very purpose.

ah, nostalgia.

Dec 25, 2008


merry christmas and other non-denominational greetings in addition. as usual, old masters can be relied on to save the day when predictability meets lack of inspiration. here is my seasonal sentiment, more ably expressed:

From this high midtown hall, undecked with boughs, unfortified with mistletoe, we send forth our tinselled greetings as of old, to friends, to readers, to strangers of many conditions in many places. Merry Christmas to uncertified accountants, to tellers who have made a mistake in addition, to girls who have made a mistake in judgment, to grounded airline passengers, and to all those who can't eat clams! We greet with particular warmth people who wake and smell smoke. To captains of river boats on snowy mornings we send an answering toot at this holiday time. Merry Christmas to intellectuals and other despised minorities! Merry Christmas to the musicians of Muzak and men whose shoes don't fit! Greetings of the season to unemployed actors and the blacklisted everywhere who suffer for sins uncommitted; a holly thorn in the thumb of compilers of lists! Greetings to wives who can't find their glasses and to poets who can't find their rhymes! Merry Christmas to the unloved, the misunderstood, the overweight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word "How" (as though they knew!). Greetings to people with a ringing in their ears; greetings to growers of gourds, to shearers of sheep, and to makers of change in the lonely underground booths! Merry Christmas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christmas to people who can't stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the boarders in boarding houses on 25 December, the duennas in Central Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got nothing in the mail. Merry Christmas to people who plant trees in city streets; merry Christmas to people who save prairie chickens from extinction! Greetings of a purely mechanical sort to machines that think--plus a sprig of artificial holly. Joyous Yule to Cadillac owners whose conduct is unworthy of their car! Merry Christmas to the defeated, the forgotten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bunglers! We send, most particularly and most hopefully, our greetings and our prayers to soldiers and guardsmen on land and sea and in the air--the young men doing the hardest things at the hardest time of life. To all such, Merry Christmas, blessings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christmas to our new leaders, peace on earth, good will, and good management! Merry Christmas to couples unhappy in doorways! Merry Christmas to all who think they are in love but aren't sure! Greetings to people waiting for trains that will take them in the wrong direction, to people doing up a bundle and the string is too short, to children with sleds and no snow! We greet ministers who can't think of a moral, gagmen who can't think of a joke. Greetings, too, to the inhabitants of other planets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small natural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of afternoon. Merry Christmas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christmas to all and to all a good morrow!
E.B. White; 20 December, 1952

Dec 24, 2008

laws and causes

i've been trying to articulate this thought for a while, and found someone else who did it for me (georg von wright, found in howard becker's tricks of the trade). there are two types of causal understanding: the predictive form, in which we understand the law that connects a set of causes with effects, and the retrodictive form, in which we understand how it was that a set of causes resulted in a given effect. the latter form is retrospective in nature and acknowledges that the relationship between cause and effect is probable, not determinate. this is intimately connected with weber's concept of elective affinity, where we retrospectively understand what currents of ideas and history combined to give rise to a particular outcome. as schutz points out, the past is determined but the future is always uncertain. in other words, it is as investment houses are prone, rightly, to saying: past performance is no indicator or guarantee of future performance.

From the fact that a phenomenon is known to have occurred, we can infer back in time that its antecedent necessary conditions must also have occurred, in the past. And by 'looking into the past' we may find traces of them in the present.
Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding

Dec 21, 2008

one down,

a few of us met on friday morning to review material for the hackman exam. around noon, a few flakes of snow began to fall. by 4pm, the ground was thickly covered, most businesses were shutting down, and FAS had decided to close all offices early. when i got home, as i studiously avoided reading for my exam in social behavior in organizations, sabeel came online and sent me a link to my ultimate downfall. it's true what they say, that when you fall, you fall hard. having not really watched any television in over 3 years, encountering firefly is a little overwhelming. firefly is particularly disarming if, like me, you're partial to country music and bad puns.

so it came to pass that, firefly having made it impossible to read anything all of friday night and much of the wee hours of saturday morning, i crammed in a bunch of reading on saturday in william james (totally deserted, far as i could tell), then ducked out for many hours to meet up with andrew and kris, both visiting from california, then gave up on reading and went home to watch more firefly.

this morning, still more snow, and the final exam. the rest of the house went outside to shovel outside and made a snow fort with a wall 9 feet tall in the front garden patch. finished the exam early afternoon with the snow still coming down, now in bigger clumps and wetly. people on the streets everywhere disconsolately shoveling out their cars, and damp dogs sniffing around on the streets.

now the sky is dark enough that the streetlights have come on and are gleaming wetly through the windows in the biscuit. it is particularly nice to be warm and dry with a mug of coffee watching snowdrifts get slowly but noticeably larger outside.

Dec 20, 2008


Above all, re-evaluation of group traits requires propaganda.
Roger Brown, Social Psychology (566)

Dec 19, 2008

the unknown

In carrying on my own humble creative effort, I depend greatly on that which I do not yet know, and upon that which I have not yet done.

Dec 18, 2008

recently in this space

there have been little other than hefty chunks from the stuff i happen to be reading. the last few weeks of term are always a stretch; everyone's just holding on for a few more days and then there's a collective sigh of relief on the last day of classes. on tuesday, i went to hackman's last lecture feeling distinctly strange, bumbled through a meeting with faculty, then threw in the towel and headed for home around 2pm. an 8-hour nap, a brief waking moment for beans with onions, garlic, and cilantro and a side-order of benadryl, and then a 14-hour nap. when i woke up again on wednesday morning, the house was empty and everything was back to normal -- testament to the power of sleep and alliums to knit up the raveled sleave of care. william james is now almost perfectly quiet every day; every hour or so, when i duck out to refill the coffee mug, the wash of sunlight in the couchspace outside has moved over a little more. the reading for social psychology goes, but glacially slowly and frequently interrupted by this.


Understanding evolves through three phases: simplistic, complex, and profoundly simple.
William Schutz, Profound Simplicity, 69.

Dec 17, 2008


An incredible number of dice, always rolling, dominate and determine each individual existence: uncertainty, then, in the realm of individual history; but in that of collective history . . . simplicity and consistency. History is indeed 'a poor little conjectural science' when it selects individuals as its objects . . . but much more rational in its procedures and results, when it examines groups and repetitions.
Fernand Braudel, "L'histoire, mesure du monde," (trans. Franco Moretti)

Dec 13, 2008


in the beginning of important things—in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work—there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished.
W.B. Yeats, "William Blake and the Imagination"

[thx mnz]

Dec 11, 2008

intellect and intuition

There are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition, for it takes in the whole, whereas the intellect only takes in a part. Pattern is born reproducing intuitively-perceived essence.
Soetsu Yanagi, Bernard Leach, The Unknown Craftsman

the scale is significant

co-operation and democracy within groups do not necessarily lead to democracy and co-operation with outgroups, if the directions and interests of the groups are conflicting.
Muzafer Sherif, "Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict"

Dec 10, 2008

ferran adria, on texture

ferran adria was at harvard yesterday, speaking at the invitation of the school of engineering and applied sciences. so many people came that the organizers had to scramble to find first one, then another overflow room into which to simulcast the lecture. i arrived an hour early, loitered by the door, then snuck in while the police officer dude was dealing with an older woman insisting that her husband had saved her a seat.

adria's lecture was nominally about texture, but really about the philosophy underpinning the kind of work he, his brother albert, and their team do at el bulli. to some extent, the portrayal of the restaurant as a research and development facility for basic and applied research into cooking is a conceit, but el bulli is really only open 6 months a year, has 70 staff serving 50 people each night, and has way more space dedicated to the kitchen and engineering lab than to the serving area.

adria thinks of cuisine as a language for communication (similar to how japanese kaiseki chefs see their practice; the two worldviews seem to coincide with high precision). they had a translator, so i was able to extract some verbatim comments:

[having just shown a video clip of people eating at el bulli] what we see here is the dialogue between the person who cooks and the people who eat. cocina is a language through which we as humans can establish a relationship. the first relationship that ever was. therefore it must be a very ancient language. our work at el bulli has been to create a language.
if we consider language to be a system of shared understanding, then the creation of a new language is the creation of social knowledge. the question in his mind now is one which interests me quite a lot: what is the mechanism by which knowledge is produced and what mechanisms validate and distribute new knowledge?

the knowledge production part of it was illustrated by his account of their gradual development of the technique of spherification (encapsulation of liquids with a skin of calcium alginate); the account is fascinating, so you should definitely check out their self-described history here). this is interesting not just because of the serendipity with which (in adria's account) he visits a food products company and sees the gelling process but because of extensiveness of the el bulli historicising impulse: the el bulli publications by now constitute a sizeable stack of paper, the most recent being a day at el bulli (published by phaidon)--only this most recent publication might be considered a mass-market book; the ones previous are better classified as reference tomes (el bulli refer to them as general catalogues).

two passing thoughts:
  1. technique that disappears: in the crystal goblet, a classic reference on typography, beatrice warde talks about the evolution of design toward a state in which content alone is noticeable and design disappears. (there are issues with that statement, but let's leave it for now). adria discussed something similar in the context of the development of xanthan gum as a thickener. the R&D impulse in this case was that flour (a traditional thickening agent) has to be used in such quantity that the addition of flour becomes noticeable in the flavour of the thickened substance. xanthan, on the other hand, has more thickening power than flour per unit, such that it can be used in small enough quantities that it imparts nothing noticeable to the substance being thickened other than the specific change in texture--it constitutes a technique refined to the point of disappearance.
  2. mimesis and unfamiliarity: albert adria has been working on a new series of techniques and preparations that broadly fall under the concept of mimesis. into this category fall desserts carefully formed to look like the fruits from which they are made, yet with flavours amplified by dehydration and other (invariably labour-intensive) techniques. the element of surprise here (biting into a "strawberry" that tastes way more intensely of strawberry than you would expect) is enhanced because of the similarity of appearance and the gap between expectation and experience. thomas keller and gray kunz have also experimented with concentrating flavours, most notably in soups and waters.
in any case,

Dec 7, 2008


In other words, the scientific observer's decision to study the social world under an objective or subjective frame of reference circumscribes from the beginning the section of the social world (or, at least, the aspect of such a section) which is capable of being studied under the scheme chosen once and for all. The basic postulate of the methodology of social science, therefore, must be the following: choose the scheme of reference adequate to the problem you are interested in, consider its limits and possibilities, make its terms compatible and consistent with one another, and having once accepted it, stick to it! If, on the other hand, the ramifications of your problem lead you in the progress of your work to the acceptance of other schemes of reference and interpretation, do not forget that with the change in the scheme all terms in the formerly used scheme necessarily undergo a shift of meaning. To preserve the consistency of your thought you have to see to it that the "subscript" of all your terms and concepts you use is the same! This is the real meaning of the so often misunderstood postulate of "purity of method."
Alfred Schutz, "Interpretative Sociology"

Dec 5, 2008

a desirable plasticity

i wrote this in 2005, and found it again by chance today while attending a conference on organizational design. apropos now, given the degree to which incomprehensible instruments have devastated the economy (john lanchester has a nice new yorker essay about how postmodernism features in said devastation). thus:

it is only when the "4" key on your thinkpad breaks down that you realize how many things require typing either a 4 or a $. spent the morning going through miscellaneous and numerous credit card and service accounts to make payments and/or close them. more than ever before, the growing influence of service providers allows them to penetrate where the conditions of their service are not fully understood by their customer base. clearly, there should be some obligation to ensure a full disclosure but i cannot help feeling that overextension of development is partly culpable. it is not unreasonable to expect someone who grows up in the age of credit and electronic banking to understand the benefits, disadvantages, and conditions governing the extension of credit to private individuals (for example) yet credit card companies routinely are forced to conduct credit education for students who have dramatically overspent on their shiny new credit cards or who do not understand the detrimental side effects of not making a monthly payment. perhaps the complexity of these financial systems are beyond those who did not grow up with them? i certainly keep my accounts as streamlined as possible, and even then they frequently perplex and frustrate.

this is ultimately a question of how plastic human high-level behavioural patterns actually are, and whether or not a high level of plasticity is in fact desirable. the oft-quoted hugh of st. victor--who only became oft-quoted after edward said quoted him in Orientalism--argued that "the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." (he was talking about something else, but in these meta-times of post-post-modernism everything is evidence.) hugh (and said) are describing the tactical immersion and flexibility of michel certeau's bricolage and james c. scott's metis, the quality that odysseus has ("o! many-sided hero"). we could take this reading to imply a normative prescriptive path that edmund burke would doubtless criticize--essentially a glue-factory approach for the outmoded. i advocate rigorous segregation, for the new is always invasive, and the old seldom has the tools to fight back. like nietzsche and tocqueville both observe, segregation allows the joint existence (and slow replacement) of two (or more) systems where combination would rapidly dilute or destroy all but one.
the question now, of course, is whether or not to let the previous system persist and gradually be replaced, or to let it crumble. this week, richard hackman mentioned something connected: the idea of partial eradication, in which whatever you don't fully eradicate generally returns, stronger than before. this is the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," antibiotic-resistant bacteria argument, and i find myself increasingly convinced.

the atlas of true names

from the atlas of true names

oh, the romance. recall ursula le guin, the international barcode of life, and the true names of things.

Dec 4, 2008

today in william james hall

photo by ben snyder

Dec 3, 2008

transparent hummingbirds

photo by craig edelman, the obliging housemate

a long overdue birthday gift for the transparent hummingbird (see here and here), finally printed today at the bow and arrow press. set in bembo smallcaps (or maybe it is apollo, by adrian frutiger, of frutiger fame.* i used the gleanings of a bastard tray of type and forget what michael decided it was), with a debossed hummingbird** cut from linoleum block. printed in black on strathmore bristol board. while i'd previously imagined something mildly frivolous (a dark brown with a pale magenta bird), the state of the world calls for something more suitably severe.

* michael emailed almost immediately to let me know that i had misidentified apollo's designer. robert slimbach is too young to have designed a metal face, though he's been influential in the new adobe redesign.
** anatomically as accurate as a 2D silhouette can be.

Dec 2, 2008


Claudia said, "But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum."

"No," I answered, "I don't agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow."

e.l. konigsburg, the mixed-up files of mrs basil e. frankweiler

[thx mnz]

Nov 30, 2008

a custard of ipomoeas

ipomoea batatas, you are my helpmeet. having made two sweet potato pies in the last two days, here is the freshly-tuned, officially-sanctioned sweet potato pie filling receipt.

1 pound sweet potatoes
4 tb unsalted butter (room temp)
1/2 cup sugar (if your potatoes are sweet, you could use less)
2 large eggs
1.5 cups light cream (also substitutable with the same volume of milk of any fat content)
a sprinkle of nutmeg
a scatter of cinnamon
a knoblet of ginger
a pinch of salt
a splash of vanilla or lemon extract (not the crummy synthetic variety)

peel potatoes, then cut into 1-inch cubes. steam until they surrender to the fork, probably 10-15 minutes. (why do people insist on boiling or baking these things? it takes ages, then you have to mess with peeling them while they steam malevolently.) mash while steaming, then allow to cool thoroughly. while waiting, you could have a calvados.

preheat your oven to 350F.

using a mixing implement of your choice, whip the butter into the mashed potatoes. the best that will happen is that you get little shreds of butter distributed throughout. they never disappear. add the sugar, salt, cream, vanilla/lemon, spices, and mix well. the mixture should attain the consistency of very heavy cream, and should be a little sweeter than you want it to be after baking. i like a light hand with the flavourings and sweeteners, but if you like your pies to taste of nothing but sugar and nutmeg, go nuts. (i've successfully refrigerated this custard mix for up to 8 hours with dire consequences for neither flavour nor intestinal well-being.)

just before baking, mix in the two eggs. into the prepared piecrust or baking tray and bake for 50 minutes at 350F, resisting the temptation to open the oven door. a cold metal skewer stuck into the center of the pie should come out clean (a firm custard) or with traces of sweet potato (a gently-set custard). cool your pie slowly or the surface will crack. this is best either cold or slightly warm, with softly-whipped cream.

and its pal, the human calendar


the human clock


Nov 29, 2008

self, expanding #3

The expansion of the circle that fills the view and interest of individuals may frequently give rise to a particular form of egoism that engenders a real and ideal restriction of social spheres. It may promote a greatheartedness and an enthusiastically outreaching vault of the psyche, both of which are inhibited by the amalgamation of personal life with a narrow interest circle of solidary comrades. But whenever circumstances or character retard this outcome, then, quite significantly, its exact opposite results ... Along many dimensions, human nature and human situations are so positioned that when the individual's relations begin to exceed a certain extensiveness, he becomes all the more thrown back upon himself.
georg simmel, "group expansion and the development of individuality"

Nov 28, 2008


The felt insecurity concerning the basis of such relations often moves us, who desire to maintain the relation at all cost, to acts of exaggerated selflessness, to the almost mechanical insurance of the relationship through the avoidance, on principle, of every possibility of conflict. Where on the other hand we are certain of the irrevocability and unreservedness of our feeling, such peace at any price is not necessary.
georg simmel, "conflict."

Nov 27, 2008

after tryptophan

and craig and jenny thought there wouldn't be enough food.

they were disabused of the notion by 4.30pm, at which time the side counter was covered in assorted trays of food and jenny and her posse had concluded their tryst with the 15-pound turkey. the carcass was on its way to the trashcan when i diverted it to a roasting tray and put it in the oven to brown. the sociologists took a break from the groaning tables at 7 to bring a plate of food and a beer to the guy who sleeps outside darwin's on cambridge street. he had several foil-wrapped plates by his side, but accepted the beer with pleasure. when we got back, we talked about agriculture for longer than strictly necessary. there was a brief moment of spectacle when jenny whipped the cream -- whipped cream not from a can is apparently a novelty.

after pie and more pie (pumpkin, pumpkin, coconut cream, apple, sweet potato), everyone left. we got through the dishes, redistributed the chairs, cleared off the counters, swept the kitchen, and took out the trash. now, everyone is in bed and i'm reading simmel with a mug of coffee, a slice of sweet potato pie, and the tunings of glenn gould and cocorosie, as the crushed bones of the turkey simmer, barely bubbling, in the stockpot.

happy thanksgiving,

Nov 26, 2008

spatial operating environment

oblong industries is developing an operating environment that relies on gestural input and thus allows data presentation in more than the usual 2D + time. doesn't yet seem useful for text input, but already good for large dataset visualizations seadragon style (i like it that they have cruciferous vegetables on their website). seems to me that increasingly we'll want to have separate interaction environments for managing visualizations and for text input. current UI and input modes are heavily optimised for the latter, at the expense of the former. subvocalized input would be awesome and might be something to bridge that gap.

(it occurs to me too that visualization mode heavily influences interaction mode, a case of function calling forth function.)

oblong's chief scientist, unsurprisingly, advised for minority report. also unsurprisingly, there is a xoogler on staff: chris rishel, who used to be on the agency team

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

Nov 25, 2008


who's bryan? no clue, but the pictures here are sweet.

Nov 24, 2008

milk, definitely.

i cannot comprehend why people make a huge fuss about dark chocolate and regard milk chocolate eaters as pariahs of a particularly egregious variety. good milk chocolate has the flavour of dark chocolate and way better texture. the best i've had are the endangered species smooth milk chocolate, equal exchange milk chocolate with hazelnut, and the paris chocolate company's flyer gold plane no. 11. this last has a special place in my heart for periodically releasing appealingly nerdy white papers on chocolate.

visual isomorphism and values dissemination

having recently completed a small-N analysis, i conclude that startups by ex-googler (xooglers, if you will) look sort of like google products. the feel of the user interfaces on weatherbill, friendfeed, nextstop all share the minimal ethic of google user interfaces.* (for comparison, look at google's adwords homepage and blogger homepage) to some extent, this is probably a feature of current priorities in web development and user interface design -- flickr, delicious, etc look sort of the same as each other and as these xoogler startups i'm talking about.

some of this isomorphism almost certainly stems from the prevalence of UI/UX (user experience) staff at web companies trained at CMU, stanford, and so forth, but this also points to how firms can become institutions with specific cultural priorities (in this case, certainly when looked at through the lens of UI philosophy). employees, for better or for worse, soak up these priorities and, when they leave, act as the RNA that spreads the word. particularly in a diffuse yet highly industry-coherent network like the valley, this mode of values distribution seems particularly significant.

* mechanical zoo is the exception that proves the rule, but every rug needs an imperfection.

Nov 21, 2008


Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reducing of friction and of material and personal costs--these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form ... Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is "dehumanized," the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation. This is appraised as its special virtue ...
Max Weber, "Bureaucracy"

Nov 19, 2008

life as transcript

last night, yochai benkler made the usual introductory remarks in advance of the berkman center's workshop on subject security. Some May Say that living online is gradually killing off living in meatspace, but it also increases the opportunities for interaction -- it's a new space for communication and association and it looks very little like the geographic space we're used to interacting in, and interaction is quite different from what we're used to. one of the comments yochai made was particularly apropos: the part of life lived online is, for the first time, one in which the vast majority of social relations are an explicit transcript. empirical variables for the study of social relations are, for the first time, not just oversimplified abstractions of social relations but the relations themselves -- for the social scientist with a methodological bent, this is huge.

Nov 18, 2008


every so often, i come across something that feels great; some organization has gone and used the resources available to it and done something interesting, unexpected, funny, gentle -- bricolage is the fancy word. it's particularly nice when that something involves a product i used to work on, and when it involves neighbourhoods and communities that coalesce around a transient event or phenomenon -- the way good art should. this is old news by now but robin hewlett and ben kinsley (both from CMU) went and orchestrated a piece of transient community art and captured it in google maps. (presumably, they did this with the help of the google streetview team. it probably doesn't hurt that part of the google geo product and engineering team work out of the google pittsburgh office, and that there are some pretty strong ties between the geo team and CMU. some of these googlers were instrumental in the launch of the sky feature in google earth and maps).

you can see Street with a View both on their website and in google maps:

View Larger Map

Nov 16, 2008

we must have one

the toaster for the well-equipped home. (unfortunate: depending on the image, the product is likely an uncrisp piece of toast.)

self, expanding, #2

What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his "soul." Man wants his physical fulfilment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.
-- d.h. lawrence, apocalypse

self, expanding

I find it useful to think of the ego complex as a thing that keeps expanding, not as something to be overcome or done away with. An ego has formed and hardened by the time most of us reach adolescence, but it is small, an ego-of-one. Then, if we fall in love, for example, the constellation of identity expands and the ego-of-one becomes an ego-of-two. The young lover, often to his own amazement, finds himself saying "we" instead of "me." Each of us identifies with a wider and wider community as we mature, coming eventually to think and act with a group-ego ... which speaks with the "we" of kings of wise old people. Of course, the larger it becomes, the less it feels like what we usually mean by ego. Not entirely, though: whether an adolescent is thinking of himself or a nation of itself, it still feels like egotism to anyone who is not included. There is still a boundary. If the ego widens still further, however, it really does change its nature and become something we would no longer call ego. There is a consciousness in which we act as part of things larger even than the race. When I picture this, I always think of the end of "Song of Myself" where Whitman dissolves into the air:
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Now the part that says "me" is scattered. There is no boundary to be outside of, unless the universe itself is bounded.

-- from lewis hyde, the gift.

Nov 14, 2008

the kelmscott chaucer

michael arranged for us to visit the houghton today to see books printed from the days of classical printing through to the revival of artisanal printing in the late 19th century and beyond. some wonders:

particularly interesting: the woodcut illustrations by burne-jones were reproduced for the print run using photographic plates. not what you think of when you think of morris, but very practical.

Nov 12, 2008

make your own muppet

fao schwartz has a new service that allows you to make your own muppet online. presumably, the patterns get sent to some lasercutter somewhere, sewn up by an itinerant stuffed-toy artisan, then make their way to you.

Nov 9, 2008


what else is really nice: when the night before was damp, the day that follows is dry and sunny, the leaves on the walnut and beech in the yard have turned yellow but not yet fallen off the trees, and there's a mug of tea on the porch.

Nov 7, 2008

stamps by typographers

a neat collection assembled by michael russem (i think as part or consequence of designing the mentoring stamp). for reasons not entirely clear, this one by gerrit noordzij is my favourite:

Nov 6, 2008

final marks

after press last night, we watched final marks, a short film about letter design and letter cutting in stone at the john stevens shop in newport RI (also, apparently, the oldest continually operating business in the US). particularly nice: showing how modern roman characters (like times new roman) are products of the original way of drawing letters with brushes -- there's barely any gap between brushdrawn serif letters and modern roman type. here's a short trailer:

short plug: letterpress 1, a class taught by michael russem of kat ran press at the bow and arrow press, is my weekly dose of light amusement.

Nov 3, 2008

the shape of things

when enough data gets together, neat stuff happens. it's probably not precise enough to call it an emergent property of data en masse, but that's good enough for the moment.

in any case, flickr now has enough photographs tagged with nested geographic information (through yahoo's gazetteer WoeID service* and latlong coordinates) that place geometry can be inferred. to simplify: take all photos with the same WoeID and make an outline surrounding them.

this reminds me of ben fry's visualization of all the roads in the US -- drawn in space without underlying topography or imagery, the road aggregations reveal both physiographic and anthropogenic terrain all by themselves.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

constantine cavafy, trans. edmund keeley, philip sherrard

Oct 29, 2008

where does the flavour go?

not long ago, on a cold late morning close to lunch, i made a bowl of whole-grain udon dressed with a vast quantity of chopped cilantro and fresh garlic and a trace amount of mirin. i forked up a clump and, instead of a taste explosion, discovered a blandness remarkable in its profundity. i cannot be sure but blame the whole grain flour nonetheless; it has its place, just not in my noodles.

not that this is the first time.

years ago now, returning from an epic journey to the wind river range of wyoming, alan, dan, and i stopped at an eat'n park in PA, just off I-80. is the eat'n park supposed to be a place where you can eat and park, or is it perhaps an eating park? this same question distracted me enough throughout my meal on that dreary morning that when my attention re-focused on my plate, I found it empty of t-bone, even though I had no recollection at all of the savour of flame-grilled blood and protein. interest piqued by this wholly unremarkable meal, i visited the restaurant's website and learned that the eat'n park is "an institution," but found no information about the meaning and provenance of its name. i also never figured out how they drain all flavor from 12-ounce t-bone steaks. perhaps they sell it by the bottle, like liquid smoke or realemon.

where does the flavour go? it is a mystery.

an unusual compliment

so, i'm trying to get this project off the ground.

Max: youre a little model-happy2:16 PM me: hey?

Max: im reading your document carefully
me: oh ok
Max: its um modelicious
2:17 PM me: i was trying to convince an originator

Oct 28, 2008

discovering topology

a nice new idea for a game, even though i don't play online games ever.

outside at this very moment

you know what's really spectacular? when the skies are the grey of galvanised metal and it has just rained. at this time of year when the leaves on the sugar maples are between green and burnt orange, their trunks become a dark brown-black and they look like paintings of themselves.

Oct 22, 2008

a great idea

this is a great idea even if aaron says it's not as data-intensive as i think it is.

Oct 19, 2008

ann cooper and polycausality

i like to say that everything is polycausal. one example, obviously, is food. in 2005, we ran a tutorial in the biology department here (bio95hfy, no longer offered) on biology, agriculture, conservation, and ecology. one of the core ideas of the class was how the patterns of human food-consumption are multiply-determined: culture, location, transportation, genetics, industry, among many other factors, influence what we choose to eat.

for north america, there may be no more important influence than agricultural subsidies. direct subsidies to the agricultural industry, in the form of payments made to farmers or purchases of commodity crops like corn and milk, have averaged $19 billion a year for the last 5 years. EWG maintains a database of the distribution of american agricultural subsidies (here is their 2007 database) which is interesting to poke around in. they've also done some analysis on the concentration of the subsidies, and estimate that the top 20% of subsidy recipients under the farm bill absorb 84% of the funds (based on distributions from 2003-2005). more than a third of the subsidies go to feed grains--including corn. these subsidies corn-growing economically feasible in the US (though obviously not fully) accounts for the presence of high fructose corn syrup and corn-derived ingredients in large swathes of commercially-produced food.

in addition, there are slews of indirect subsidies to agriculture that distort how we eat. oil, gas, and coal subsidies make synthetic pesticides and fertilizers derived from oil or manufactured in energy-intensive processes (such as the haber-bosch process for fixing nitrogen) cheaper than they otherwise would be (or should be) and thus increase the rate at which we use them. the subsidised federal interstate system makes it cheaper to transport food from across the country than it otherwise would be (or should be).

(this article about the food complex is not bad either.)

which is all a long, winding way of explaining how it is that school districts in many parts of the country are able to feed children on a food ingredient budget of just a few dollars a day per child: much of the raw material (meat, milk, corn-based products) comes either from federal crop purchase programs or is inexpensive by federal subsidy, and is implicitly subsidised by cheap transportation and cost of production. the food is cheap (cheaper than it should be) and so it makes economic sense to use it even though it's crummy. ann cooper, executive chef of the berkeley public school system, is trying her best to make it make economic sense to use good food and cook it well (she's not the only one; sCool Food in santa barbara is approaching it from an institutional perspective as well). burkhardt bilger wrote a detailed feature on her work in the new yorker (in the sept. 4, 2006 issue; only the abstract is online). but you can get a sense of what she does in her TED presentation:

* alice waters and josh viertel, new president of slow food america, were just here this week. their panel was facilitated by, of all people, homi bhabha. he didn't seem to have much background on the interconnections between food, culture, and the machinery of production that exists here and in the rest of the world. he cited repeatedly, in fact exclusively, from last week's new york times magazine.

Oct 16, 2008


the workmanship of risk is the kind of work in which serendipity can make itself visible. one of the major characters of the workmanship of risk is the cumulative, irreversible trajectory of the work. a mistake made at any point in the work irretrievably affects everything up to that point and cannot be undone (hence the risk). "fixing a mistake" is frequently thought of as "undoing the mistake," but it can be a process of either undoing or of habilitation. undoing is the more certain mode and the mode of strong path determinism, but it leads to no final product that is more than was initially envisaged.

habilitation (making the mistake part of the work) only becomes likely where undoing is not possible -- the linear progress of the workmanship of risk is thus the element that opens the work to new and unexpected developments. horace walpole, who may be credited (if we believe wikipedia) with introducing the concept of serendipity to the english language, called it "accidental sagacity -- for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for, comes under this description": the elements of grace* and stochasticity in the habilitation of mistakes.

* on which, also see lawrence weschler's idea of grace. the event in which a mistake is transformed, habilitated is a combination of chance and preparation: "There is all that preparation -- preparation for receptivity -- and then there is something else beyond that, which is gratis, for free."

Oct 13, 2008

praxis, transcendence

Pride in craftsmanship is well explained by saying that to labor is to pray, for conscientious effort to realize an ideal is a kind of fidelity. The craftsman of old did not hurry, because the perfect takes no account of time and shoddy work is a reproach to character. But character itself is an expression of self-control, which does not come of taking the easiest way. Where character forbids self-indulgence, transcendence still hovers around.
richard weaver, ideas have consequences.

it's always difficult to explain why doing something well requires no more and no less than the right amount of time. like faith, any explanation of craft -- in writing, in research, in the making of things -- ends up depending on a kind of intuition that defies reduction. the concept of species-being in marx's humanist writings captures some element of it: free labour in an elevated conception, the activity of free humans that reproduces them as a species because unforced. i read it as activity governed not by the exogenous demands of hunger, shelter, etc, but only by imperatives endogenous to the individual psyche, the internal moral economy. where the motivation is internal, character is the determinant of work and self-control, and is therefore the genesis of, and the standard for, a craft sensibility. saying that craftsmen in days past did not hurry seems a facile oversimplification -- in every age, people sought to work to the standard demanded by internal moral economies developed through individual and social histories. the craftsmen have always been those with strict internal arbiters; there may have been more in the past, or conditions may have favoured their work then, but the craft spirit is with us now as it was with us then. the greeks had a useful work for the act of craft: praxis.

Oct 7, 2008

informational graphics

this is quite good. (ironic)

gilbert and george

bending it:

Oct 6, 2008

power in the north

this week, we read from various writers on inequality in power. (and also from marx's capital and the grundrisse, but of those two densities let no more be said.) rhetorical imperatives seem to drive at least most of the classical social theorists to propose strongly monocausal explanations for phenomena like class and inequality, even though that kind of explanation is singularly unconvincing under the least scrutiny. having read for weeks about how there is an ineluctability to the rise of the proletariat, it's refreshing to read mills and see acknowledgment that there are conditions under which agency gives rise to major change.
The power elite are not solitary rulers. Advisers and consultants, spokesmen and opinion-makers are often the captains of their higher thought and decision. ... When knowledgeable journalists tell us that 'events, not men, shape the big decisions,' they are echoing the theory of history as Fortune, Chance, Fate, or the work of The Unseen Hand. For 'events' is merely a modern word for these older ideas, all of which separate men from history-making, because all of them lead us to believe that history goes on behind men's backs. History is drift with no mastery; within it there is action but no deed; history is mere happening and the event intended by no one. The course of events in our time depends more on a series of human decisions than on any inevitable fate. The sociological meaning of 'fate' is simply this: that, when the decisions are innumerable and each one is of small consequence, all of them add up in a way no man intended -- to history as fate. But not all epochs are equally fateful. As the circle of those who decide is narrowed, as the means of decision are centralized and the consequences of decisions become enormous, then the course of great events often rests upon the decisions of determinable circles. This does not necessarily mean that the same circle of men follow through from one event to another in such a way that all of history is merely their plot. The power of the elite does not necessarily mean that history is not also shaped by a series of small decisions, none of which are thought out. It does not mean that a hundred small arrangements and compromises and adaptations may not be built into the going policy and the living event. The idea of the power elite implies nothing about the process of decision-making as such: it is an attempt to delimit the social areas within which that process, whatever its character, goes on.
c. wright mills, the power elite

mills proposes to identify the social areas within which the power elite emerge, but i'm much more interested in figuring out their morphology, the signals that identify their presence. this is interesting because i've always contended that the US has an elite that's hidden in plain sight -- the result of a country founded on a deep-rooted belief in equality of individual and opportunity. as in many other countries that have bought into the western intellectual tradition of means-ends rationality and of equal opportunity, virtue and normative value has attached itself to what we become, not what we are. where then does the morphology of elitism hide? i spent some time writing about one place where i thought it might go.

others, of course, have located signals in the construction of the canon of general knowledge, which is general only in creating a distinction between those who have it and those who don't. e.h. gombrich has a great essay on the topic called "the tradition of general knowledge." systems of education and egalitarian access frequently are walled around by barriers that are difficult to see.
Even when academic degrees, scientific training, special aptitudes as tested by examinations and competitions, open the way to public office, there is no eliminating that special advantage in favor of certain individuals which the French call the advantage of positions déjà prises. In actual fact, though examinations and competitions may theoretically be open to all, the majority never have the resources of meeting the expense of long preparation, and many others are without the connections and kindships that set an individual promptly on the right road, enabling him to avoid the gropings and blunders that are inevitable when one enters an unfamiliar environment without any guidance or support.
gaetano mosca, the ruling class

Oct 5, 2008

faith in darwin's restored

they are just down the street, so are convenient for lunch on those days when i have so many seminars that i end up in william james all day slumped on the fifth-floor couches. they were in a downward spiral the last few times i was there, but maybe they have reversed the curse. the restoration sandwiches:
  1. roast turkey, arugula, cheddar, and honey mustard sandwich on a crunch roll
  2. softly-scrambled eggs, bacon, and avocado on toasted 7-grain

Sep 27, 2008

arduous journeys

From Manteq al-Tayr, Farid ud-Din Attar (Fitzgerald, trans.):
But how could you have expected to travel that path in thought alone; how expect to measure the moon by the fish? No, my neighbors, never think that path is a short one; you must have lions' hearts to go by that way, it is not short and its seas are deep; you will walk it long in wonder, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.
it has the same feeling as a babylon candle (as used in deep secret or stardust):
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your feet are speedy and light
You can get there by candle-light.

Sep 16, 2008

the architecture of happiness

i took alain de botton's architecture of happiness out of lamont last week. it may be the pleasantest architectural theory i've ever read, and he manages regardless to discuss several things of special interest to me. care is often a tacit component of the discussion of craft. de botton, because of his particular orientation to the affective quality of architecture, provides a particularly crisp summary of the meaning of care in craft and the conditions that allow it to be practised:

in a busy, often heedless world, they stand as markers of patience and generosity, of a kind of sweetness and even love: a kindness without ulterior motive.

Although we belong to a species which spends an alarming amount of its time blowing things up, every now and then we are moved to add gargoyles or garlands, stars or wreaths, to our buildings for no practical reason whatever. In the finest of these flourishes, we can read signs of goodness in a material register, a form of frozen benevolence. We see in them evidence of those sides of human nature which enable us to thrive rather than simply survive. These elegant touches remind us that we are not exclusively pragmatic or sensible: we are also creatures who, with no possibility of profit or power, occasionally carves friars out of stone and mould angels onto walls. In order not to mock such details, we need a culture confident enough about its pragmatism and aggression that it can also acknowledge the contrary demands of vulnerability and play -- a culture, that is, sufficiently unthreatened by weakness and decadence to allow for visible celebrations of tenderness.
security (just a synonym here for confidence) seems a prerequisite for people to imbue their work with generosity (toward age and decay, space, light). perhaps this is why it seems to be that the only artists able to make work that is not overwrought are those psychologically secure in a body of work or a conceptual space in which to work.

another attraction of the book is its conscious and constant exploration of the fine line separating normalcy from bathos: for example, discussing those who eschew physical possessions because of a refined sensitivity to their eventual decay:
Such melancholic enthusiasts will see the moth hole beneath the curtain swatch and the ruin beneath the plan. They may at the last moment cancel and appointment with an estate agent, having realised that the house under offer, as well as the city and even civilisation itself, will soon enough be reduced to fragments of shattered brick over which cockroaches will triumphantly crawl.

the kingdom of loathing

an online RPG featuring characters such as:

With his mastery of the arcane secrets of Noodlecraft, the Pastamancer is a force to be reckoned with. He relies on his Mysticality to get ahead in the world.
Sauceror Long engaged in an uneasy truce with the Pastamancers, the guild of Saucerors protects the secrets of the Ancient Brotherhood of Gravymakers. Their Mysticality is their most important attribute.
Disco Bandit
The Disco Bandit boogies to and fro, hither and yon. Whence comes he? No man knows. Whither strikes he next? All men live in fear of him and his Moxie.

villains such as the sabre-toothed lime , and equipment like the meatloaf helmet .

Sep 13, 2008

interesting, weber, and enchantment

occasionally, anyway. i went down to ny today, mostly for the interesting nyc conference and also partly to scope out a few galleries. i thought it would be a bit like sci foo (more here; yet more here), but interesting turned out to be mostly an ad industry event (at least, so it seemed): at the risk of throwing stones while living in a glass house, there were a couple of software presentations -- including one about php ("i just learned about recursion a few days ago!") -- at a level so low it was actually strenuous and a memorable talk in which the audience was characterised repeatedly as leviathans of cultural consumption and synthesis, each on the brink of cognitive self-destruction.

in any case. about the only major takeaway was from a lecture by gaurav mishra. mishra is a marketer who's part-way through a year of abandoning consumption. (naturally, like everyone else who spends an entire year doing anything noteworthy, the plan is to write a book about it. cf: cooking like julia child, eating locally, living by the dictates of the bible, and -- my favourite -- living in the south of france.) he showed a slide partway through his lecture with a curve showing pre- and post-materialist states:

the curve is a little disingenuous or, at least, does him a disservice in not clearly representing the point of the transition from pre- to post-materialism, which is that the process of transition changes the valence of the objects possessed. while pre- and post-materialist individuals could be at the same level of material possession, there's an ontological change in the meaning of the possessions -- they are elevated now such that, presumably, post-materialist man is happy with them where pre-materialist man was not.

we see the same pattern in the weberian cycle of enchantment > rationalisation > re-enchantment (through the engines of bureaucracy and charisma). a re-enchanted sphere of life looks the same, but is dramatically different, is elevated from its origin state. a curve describes only one dimension of the trajectory of the return to enchantment by way of rationalisation; the best way to show it is probably as a upward spiral that looks, from the top at least, like a circle. (click on the image for much clearer diagram.) obviously, this defies easy axial labeling.

Sep 11, 2008

distributed storage

finally, but marred by a really crummy logo: wuala

Sep 10, 2008

letterpress, strangely right

a great short film by chuck kraemer, about letterpress (specifically, a small press now in allston). elsa dorfman, the fabled portrait photographer in cambridge, has a light webpage about firefly press.

type, the web, and the crystal goblet

"the crystal goblet" by beatrice warde (a short read available here) is a crisp exposition of invisible typography, the idea that the design of the page should be transparent rather than calling attention to itself. content should speak for itself; bad content can infrequently (arguably, never) be saved by good design:
Get attention as you will by your headline, and make any pretty type pictures you like if you are sure that the copy is useless as a means of selling goods; but if you are happy enough to have really good copy to work with, I beg you to remember that thousands of people pay hard-earned money for the privilege of reading quietly set book-pages, and that only your wildest ingenuity can stop people from reading a really interesting text.

Printing demands a humility of mind, for the lack of which many of the fine arts are even now floundering in self-conscious and maudlin experiments. There is nothing simple or dull in achieving the transparent page. Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline. When you realise that ugly typography never effaces itself; you will be able to capture beauty as the wise men capture happiness by aiming at something else. The 'stunt typographer' learns the fickleness of rich men who hate to read. Not for them are long breaths held over serif and kern, they will not appreciate your splitting of hair-spaces. Nobody (save the other craftsmen) will appreciate half your skill. But you may spend endless years of happy experiment in devising that crystalline goblet which is worthy to hold the vintage of the human mind.

the same can be said of the web -- good content and good design that enables good content to be parsed easily are paramount. flash-heavy, content-poor sites may launch with a big splash, but are generally assured of rapid anonymity. the same principle also applies to all sorts of domains in which craft is applied to raw materials of varying quality: food, furniture, education, etc.

Sep 6, 2008

the sacred treasures of bhutan

the rubin museum will host a traveling exhibition of still-consecrated bhutanese buddhist art (per the nyt).
The works in the exhibition are not only national treasures, said Ramon Prats, the museum's senior curator, "but also living icons, whose sacredness must be maintained." To that purpose, five monks from central Bhutan relocated for the show's duration in Honolulu, where in addition to fulfilling their spiritual duties they developed a taste for Costco pizza and learned to paddle surf.
the rubin is across the street from miya shoji, the japanese custom cabinetry shop at which i watched ping pong and had a surreal conversation about work.

Sep 4, 2008

print on demand book covers

this is neat. the graphic border is made of little elements broadly-themed by book category (nonfiction, arts, children, etc) and then reassembled algorithmically for each copy of each book printed.

Sep 3, 2008

things change

after everyone left, whit and i spent the weekend working on stuff -- she was much more efficient and got out at 6-ish, but i was in there late every night. i made two bowls out of norway maple blanks i'd roughed out my second week at the ranch (one of them is the best one i've done in a while), cut up a strip of little shapes into little bowl blanks and turned those too, made four location boxes out of scrap cherry and mahogany, finished painting and finishing "you get what you pay for" in the happiest colours ever (i like the yellow in there a lot), and made two carved and framed panels. then yesterday, i got on a plane and ended up in cambridge with nothing to do but unpack the boxes that have been in the basement since may. the thing about all-encompassing engagements is that they end with a strange void. it's hot out, and there are crickets in the trees making a racket. the toscanini's in the square has been replaced by a jp licks (not an acceptable substitute), and there's an upper crust and a new 24-hour gourmet grocer on brattle st. the bookstore is still the same, which is nice.

it's good to be back.

Aug 25, 2008


effie sent this, a pair of germans who photograph lightpaths in remote locations. some of their work reminds me of the photo-respiration series, by tokihiro sato. in any case, quite beautiful.

lightmark no. 60; N 70°26’36.5“ E 27°53’27.1“, 2007

also, today, 45 minutes at lunch in a hammock under aspens, with an iced coffee and the books on play.

Aug 21, 2008

you get what you pay for

you get what you pay for
poplar, milk paint, red oak
18" x 5" x 2.5"

Aug 11, 2008


aaron got me from google and we picked up some coffee from downtown mountain view before heading to the airport where he was going to collect someone and drop me off at bart. i got into the city just before 5 and walked up the hill in gorgeous sunlight and warm breezes to the old apartment for the first time in 2 months. ami tells me that last weekend was the first beautiful one in weeks, so i guess you don't miss a place until you come back and find it perfect.

i got a carefully-made, bittersweet iced coffee from ritual roasters, then headed up to pacific heights, arriving at quince at 7pm by way of jake and laura's apartment across the street. quince has a back table in the kitchen, and jake found enough people to make it work. great service for a large and confused table over a four-hour dinner by consummate professionals who never missed a beat and jousted with our table all evening.

four tastings of domestic and italian artisanal olive oil emerged from the kitchen gratis, together with samples of mulberries and orange and pepper truffles and a salt-crusted golden-tailed snapper that had just landed in california that same morning. we had a server dedicated to our table; her precise flourishes with the bottle of balsamic vinegar were bird-like and protocol officer-esque in the manner of C3PO and forced several of us to hold in snorts of laughter. dinner was
  • a melon nectar shot with fried zucchini and anchovy.
  • halibut tartare with soybeans and a citrus passionfruit grain mustard
  • fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta and drizzled with olive oil. (so recently fried that they were still deflating when they arrived at table and were still tenderly liquid at the core)
  • castelmagno-stuffed tortelloni with honey brown butter sauce and a candied pecan. (two pillows of pasta filled with a salty burrata-like italian cheese; the honey in the sauce a fine balance to the salt in the cheese)
  • shreds of golden-tailed snapper in a cream sauce with lemon verbena and chopped vegetables. (we were tested and found wanting, not being able to identify the secret herb in the sauce, which was lemon verbena, of course)
  • agnolotti of veal, pork, and rabbit, with sage brown butter
  • tagliatelle with roasted quail ragu (both pastas were deeply, intensely satisfying, in the same category as the veal ragu bombolotti at jackson fillmore)
  • thin slices of rib eye with creamed nettles and fried artichoke with 5-barrel aged balsamic vinegar
  • peach leaf mousse with almonds and a black mulberry granita (the most successful dessert i've had in a long time. a creamy semifreddo with a bitter almond flavor at the very end of lightness and restraint, highlighted by roasted almonds, deeply-flavoured mulberry ice, and slices of santa rosa plum)