Archives: Oddversational

big dead bug

There is a large art show in Los Angeles every year – it used to be held in a couple of hangars at the Santa Monica Airport, but this year it was down the street from me at the LA Convention Center. I’ve missed too many interesting things at that Convention Center since I moved in here over 2 years ago, so I walked down to see it.

statue

I didn’t take too many pictures, as there was a “No Photography” sign, though I probably could have. I’m kind of glad I didn’t though, since taking pictures often causes me to not really look at things until later, when I’m going through the photos. Then, it’s generally too late, as all the valuable lessons are really to be had from looking at the paintings and sculptures in person.

There were some really wonderful things there. In particular I loved Khang Pham-New’s sculptures. The large one they had there was Escutcheon, and it really is mesmerizing to look at up close.

There were both contemporary and antique dealers there, and I was surprised to find three actual Bouguereaus on display! I’ve never seen any of these paintings in person, and they were magnificent.

There was also a dealer who handled prints of old botanical illustrations. Those were gorgeous, but the way she had them framed was almost better than the drawings themselves. There were several galleries with pieces that took advantage of optical illusions, or the texture and shadow-casting of different materials (some fine-mesh wire horse bas reliefs with oblique lighting were stunning). There was also an abstract wood sculpture of a woman running with a horse that was stylized in a way similar to something I was doing in a sculpted bottle design for a client late last year. That design has remained a set of drawings, but seeing this sculpture really makes me want to bring that bottle into three dimensions.

I was struck by how high quality everything was, and not in a safe, tedious way (or at least not got the most part!). There was really good work on display. I’ve been going to the Downtown Art Walk here in LA for over a year now, and I rarely see work this skilled or fully formed at any of those galleries. I don’t know how to define it, but these pieces had substance.

It was a good couple of hours.

On the way back home, since I didn’t get to take many pictures at the show, I decided to try a couple of self portrait experiments.

This one is built out of a snapshot of my reflection in the convention center doors. I was going for a kind of playing-card feeling:

Face Card

And this one I tried to make somewhat unsettling. I think of it as an illustration of a conscience:

conscience

After watching this:

I started reading Clay Shirky’s book: Here Comes Everybody.

In there is the following quote:

Wikipedia invites us to do the following disorienting math: a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.

Here Comes Everybody – Clay Shirky – pg. 139

Which reminded me of something Wallace Shawn says in the film My Dinner With Andre:

Well, the meaningless fact of the fortune cookie or the turtle’s egg can’t possibly have any relevance to the subject you’re analyzing. Whereas a group of meaningless facts which are collected and interpreted in a scientific way may quite possibly be relevant. Because the great thing about scientific theories about things is that they’re based on experiments that can be repeated.

My Dinner With Andre – By Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory – Film by Louis Malle

Both of these quotes are getting at something important that I haven’t figured out how to articulate well yet. There is a way, somehow, that intelligence can derive meaning out of meaninglessness. Something like that. It’s something that no other process we have yet observed or devised can do. It’s a bit circular, I suppose, in that it is only intelligence itself that seeks meaning – so that I guess you could define meaningfulness as “stories that satisfy intellectual curiosity”, but it really seems more fundamental than that.

To me, at least, this still seems like maybe the defining mystery in sentience. There is a way in which it transforms mere consequence into structure. I wish I could say this better. I’ll probably keep taking stabs at it here until I get a good formulation.

Since I started writing again, I’m trying not to do too many miscellaneous posts that amount to nothing more than “Hey! Look at this cool stuff I saw online!”.

But, well, look at this cool stuff I saw online:


MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

I could watch this all day. I want it to just keep going and getting bigger. It’s really mesmerizing, and it has these moments that border on revelatory, you know? You feel like something significant is about to be communicated, almost, if you could just understand.

And, in a complete shift of gears, I moved a large entertainment center shelf in my apartment because I wanted more wall space to hang pictures on, but now the TV and audio equipment is just stacked in an unattractive pile on the floor. I’ve been wanting to do something artful with it, that won’t block out the regained wall space.

I remember an old friend from college who was taking an architecture course, and was given an assignment to use a piece of cardboard to build a structure that could support his own weight for something like 30 seconds. Apparently, many people’s more elaborate attempts collapsed under them before the clock ran out, but what my friend did was just cut the board in half, put half slits in the middle of each piece and slide them together as an X. This supported his weight for over the given time.

A few years later, for another friend I spent several weeks building weird costumes out of cardboard, duct-tape, crepe-paper and Elmer’s glue, and then painting them. The end result was pretty cool.

Which is all a long winded way to say I’ve been thinking about making something out of cardboard and some combination of interesting finishing process to sit the electronics on top of. Cardboard is surprisingly sturdy if constructed intelligently, and can be made to look surprisingly good with some creativity.

Case in point, I came across this stuff today:

cartonnistes diy cardboard furniture

How to design your own cardboard furniture

Let’s see if I can muster up the energy.

Maybe if I start taking anti-narcoleptic drugs. (That’s not a drug ad, it’s a link to an interesting blog post by someone who decided to experiment with taking a prescription anti-narcoleptic to enhance his mental acuity. It makes a rather persuasive case in favor… interesting read.)

This is partly expanded on an email I wrote to someone, but the ideas have got lodged in my head and I need to type them out.

There is a magazine called Dwell. Since that magazine came out I’ve gawked enviously at the open gorgeousness of the houses photographed in there, but I stopped reading it a while ago out a an odd frustration.

The editors promote a philosophy based on affordable sustainability married with clean modern elegance, and I’m there totally with that, but then month after month the magazine seems to mainly feature expensive one-offs, tiny vacation houses that you couldn’t really use as a full time residence, or else graduate architecture experiments. Actually obtaining or living in a house like most of the houses they feature is almost as out of reach as a more extravagant mansion. They seem to get tied up in what I can only think of as a sort of virtuous opulence – and though the virtue is great the opulence part sends the affordability (and the effectiveness of it as a design movement) out the window.

Which is frustrating, you know? I’d done a bit of deeper searching online for groups or even other individuals who might be devoted as amateurs to something more reachable, but hadn’t really had much luck. I wanted some kind of open-source modern house project… something that had some or all of the following things as organizational ideals:

1) Build it with the least amount of materials necessary

2) Keep all components simple and easily accessible / repairable / replaceable. I mean, electrical wiring, plumbing, etc. doesn’t really HAVE to be complicated. Construction doesn’t HAVE to require large numbers of on-site contractors. It doesn’t HAVE to be that hard!

3) Use the climate and landscape of the area to the structure’s energy advantage

4) Make aesthetics a consideration in every stage of the design

5) Aim for construction that can be done well by a dedicated amateur

6) Aim to bring the total cost of materials in under $100,000.00

7) Keep an updated building code by region wiki-style resource to help people figure out what can be done where, and what they may have to go through to get something unusual approved.

It seems like that could be done. I had hoped Dwell would incline more in that direction, but it hasn’t.

So my correspondent pointed me at this site:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/

At first glance I thought, well, neat! But it seemed fairly sparsely fleshed out, and seemed to concentrate mainly on Third World structures, so it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. But that is because I was looking at this page:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/resources

Where I neglected to look at first was here:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects

That is much more like it! So – there is some delving to be done there.

Now, to tie this thinking in a bit with the subject of my last post – one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is that it’s fairly easy to build a low energy consumption house in the southwest US, as the climate is favorable to human life pretty much all the time. But what about places like Buffalo, where it is mostly cloudy year ’round, often very cold, and frequently precipitating? I understand the Netherlands, and Northern Europe in general has a strong movement of sustainable architecture and design, so more aggressive climates can be negotiated, but I don’t know much about what that really takes.

One of the things I think will eventually happen with wind turbine generators is someone will someday devise a simple-to-assemble backyard kit. This kit will be sold at Home Depot for under $1000.00. It won’t be anywhere near powerful enough to power a whole regular suburban home, but what it will do is take a bit of the edge off of electricity consumption in the winter months.

wind turbine atop roof
This picture of a wind turbine atop a building roof in Chicago (ironically featured in an issue of Dwell!) linked to from dane brian’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved You can read more and get a better view of the actual turbines here.

In the cold climate, it’s this winter electricity and heating usage that really causes financial pain when utility bills arrive. Homeowners in these regions will be very open to anything that shaves some palpable fraction of this cost away, especially if it’s easy to set up and they see some of their neighbors doing it without undue trouble. The second winter after these are introduced they will fly off the shelves, and every year thereafter they will get better and more efficient, and before anyone realizes it, suburban houses in the north latitudes will have wind turbines as often as they have swimming pools and satellite dishes. They don’t have to power the whole house – they just need to cut the winter power bill by enough to offset their purchase price in the first half of the winter, and then save their owners an amount equal to their purchase price for the second half.

Houses in Buffalo are pretty cheap right now. Property values are down, and there are many abandoned dwellings.

An interesting experiment might be to buy the most inexpensive house there that can be found, and try modifying it to be both comfortable, stylish and use as little energy as possible without sacrificing luxury/necessities like cable TV, Internet access, refrigerators, washing machines, climate control and lights. Keep all the details about the endeavor publicly available online – show the costs and track them over a 3 or 5 year period. Make it as easy as possible for someone reading to replicate or riff on the experiment elsewhere, and share the details of what they did too.

Grow an open source home conversion project, and concentrate the initial examples on places with more extreme environments. Try to keep the crunchy out of it, make them support the kind of life people mostly really want to live. Not one of deprivation, but one of modest luxury.

Can it be done in a normal house, in an average neighborhood in a locale with a challenging seasonal climate? I bet it can. I kind of want to try it.

It was Mother’s Day this past Sunday, and consequently I called my mother. In among the updates on weather, the stray cat that lives on the porch and the shocking lack of yard space in front of townhouses by the river, she mentioned something that turned our conversation in a direction I rarely go with the parents.

Apparently there is some large amount of effort going in constructing manageable small homes for the elderly. Now, the region we’re talking about is Western New York, the area around Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where I grew up, and where most of the clan still resides. This region boomed in the era of the Erie Canal, when all of Canada’s cut lumber came down through on it’s way to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Later, it boomed again when the steel industry thrived. I understand why the canal sparked a boom, I’m not as clear on why the region was advantageous for steel. But what happened after steel is that everything more or less crashed, and has been sliding into senescence ever since.

Erie Canal

The largest single employer there now is the State University. Graduates don’t stay, though, the area does not welcome or support innovation, the arts, ingenuity or entrepreneurial experiment. The kids who can, leave. They don’t come back. Many of the kids who can’t, stay, have kids too young, and deepen the cycle of decline. Some good, creative young people stay and labor mightily to keep the machinery of community there alive. But very few stay. The average age keeps ascending, it’s becoming a sort of lost land of the elderly. Empty, abandoned houses are a problem.

So now they’re building to house the old folks more easily. When that generation passes, there won’t be many left. I’ll have to do a little work and check for numbers on these trends – but my experience, and that of others I know in the region still, is this – the population is graying and there is nothing to attract youth or energy to the region.

Why?

Erie Canal

Because here’s the thing – Western New York could be the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy. This is a region that endures gales out of Canada over the Great Lakes, which are shallow enough to construct massive offshore wind farms in. It has giant freshwater lakes and the massive Niagara River the falls of which already have a hydroelectric power plant which I imagine could be improved or expanded so as to generate a lot more energy than it already does. It endures an overwhelming excess of water in the form of snow through the winter and rain for the rest of the year. Residents would be happy to have a bit less of that water coming out of the sky all the time.

I currently live in Southern California, and I’ll tell you what the southwest doesn’t have. Water! People keep moving here, las Vegas spreads out as far as the eye can see in its corner of Nevada, and every time I see it I just can’t understand where everyone thinks the water is going to keep coming from! I’m sure some massive redistributive water pipeline from the northeast to the southwest is not really feasible, and would have undesirable consequences, but I’m sure there are other ways to reallocate some of Western new York’s massive water wealth to the area’s financial benefit.

Maybe when the aging population is reduced enough by time and the dwindling economy to no longer be an effective force in NIMBYing any transformative ideas into unfeasability, and if oil remains prohibitive, some real vision will take root there and the wind, rain and river will bring another boom.

If I knew how to do it myself, I would. It’s like gold just laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up!

Did I mention I’m prone to developing kidney stones? I produced my first back in 94, and have seen them return twice since then. I am a kind of sentient quarry that produces calcium oxalate crystals and pain in a measure disproportionately favoring the latter. In between these episodes, I function largely in the disguise of a human being.

My mineral nature has reasserted itself today, and I look forward to rich vein of accreted misery to be vigorously mined over the next few weeks.

Filling up the brita, popping back the motrin. Time to hydrate. Jumping-jacks are recommended. The Stone… It Moves!

Devil's Marbles, Northern Territory, Australia
This picture of the Devil’s Marbles linked to from swiss.frog’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved

As the venerable musical ensemble AC/DC once proclaimed (with embellishments for the present occasion): For those about to (produce) rock(s), we salute you!

P.S. – Not much progress on the project, hopefully more to report this month!

About a month belatedly, but Happy 2008!

We’ll be widening the scope here this year. I’ll still be posting those half-formed thoughts about the future, and probably more rambling video conversations. But the big change this year is a PROJECT, and the goal is to expose all its detailed workings here.

Back in 2003 I had a large credit card debt, a car loan and still some unpaid student loans. I made a slogan for the year, “Debt Free in ’03”, and this was a successful focusing agent on my behavior. Any time I reached for my wallet, or contemplated a purchase, it popped into my head: “Debt Free in ’03”. Usually, the purchase was deferred. I eliminated all my debts that year.

Since then I’ve tried to come up with a slogan to focus on each year, but haven’t really been able to. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think up good rhymes for ’04, ’05, ’06 or ’07. At least, not one’s that coincided with major life goals. But this is a new year, and now I have two!

I’m 38 years old. I work in the corporate software department of a bank. It’s a decent, but uninspiring job. I’ve strayed pretty far from the artistic activities that used to be the meaningful side of my life. I used to be an actor, I used to draw and paint, I used to write and create things. This past two years I’ve ramped up the drawing again, and am getting to the point of surpassing my old skills at last. But I’m 38 now… it’s a bit late to jump careers. I will not be poor again. There are risks I’m no longer comfortable taking.

I get the feeling if I can’t make my creative work pay by the end of this year, it will be too late. This year is really a line in the sand. I put up, this year, or I shut up.

The easy slogan, “Create in ’08”. But the larger one, the one that matters, “Liberate in ’08”.

So, what is the PROJECT?

Did I show you my cat drawings?

Cats!

They are for an animated short that my friend Eric & I are now working on. It’ll be probably about 3 or 4 minutes long, and it’s called “The Night Felix Met Satan Cat”… it’s going to be done in the style of those old fashioned Max Fleischer cartoons – you know the old Black & White cartoons where every character has rubbery arms & legs and they’re always bouncing up and down in time to the music? Ours will be in color, but should be the same style.

The story is a sort of comedy song that Eric wrote a long time ago. We’ve performed it live before – I drew a series of cards that told the story, and Eric would sit onstage and do the song while flipping the cards to illustrate it. The video isn’t too great, but here’s a youtube of one of those performances.

We expect to be done with it in December. It is good to have goals.

Animation seems to be a logical way to go for me. It requires skill in all the things I’ve enjoyed doing so far. The thing it also requires that I haven’t really demonstrated is relentless concentrated determination. So this is the key… narrowing focus for the year. This is the main project. Side projects, my usual Attention Deficit Derelictions, need to kept in check. I need to save money, start selling some of the artwork I’ve already produced, and complete this cartoon to a professional level of quality. Granted, the plan sort of looks like this right now:

STEP 1: Make Cartoon
STEP 2: ?
STEP 3: Profit!

But that’s where we’re starting. We’ll figure out step 2 as we go.

In the meantime I’ll try to keep popping in here to do updates.

While were in conversational mode, I realized I never finished posting these YouTube conversations, though Eric and I did finish editing them a while ago.

I like the idea of this kind of taped conversation, though I think the production could be a bit more polished, even on no budget. We’ll try some more in the not too distant future, but for a dry run of it, I’m content with how this turned out.

All together they come out just shy of 30 minutes, about 10 minutes each.

Here they are, in order:

PART I

Installment 1 of a videotaped conversation about Futurism and what might constitute a revolution in wealth creation. Filmmaking, Ben Franklin, Obsessive Amateurs and King Kong are also referenced. Coffee is drunk, cigars are smoked, and a good time is had by all.

PART II
Our conversation continues; Who benefits? Things that are almost free! A mythical fat little girl in Iowa! Killing vs. Living! Independent Texans! Bruce! Sexy Green Things! Unexpected Vulgarity! Expanding the Sphere of Your Life! View on…

PART III
Our conversation concludes; Court the Wealthy, Save the Earth! Scary Old VCRs! Never Stop Spinning! Surprise, Look What Happened! Things like that just didn’t happen back then…! Weird Half Measures! Radio, With Cameras Pointed At It! Eric wants a green condo (his is yellow)! Dystopian Disaster! International Leapfrog! That’s the kind of thing that will happen! And fade out – the end!

I’ve started having an email conversation with a friend about consciousness, and whether we gain anything from having it. I think it might be fun to post some of it here.

This has come about from both of us having read Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, which is available for you to legally download free here, but which I strongly recommend you actually purchase with real money.

A good, and entertaining, introduction to this can also be had at the mere cost of 20 minutes or so of your time viewing this excellent mock pharmaceutical research presentation:

The Vampire Domestication Slide Show
View it, and then come back and read…

Back already? Then here we go:

The book raises the question, which my friend has explicitly asked:

“Did you come away with any thoughts about what consciousness *is* for, anyway?”

What’s it for? I think Watts suspects it isn’t for anything, but is something like a non-adaptive mutation that got fixed in the population somehow. By non-adaptive I don’t mean maladaptive… you know?

I don’t know if I’d go that far, though. Seems like it must bestow some evolutionary advantage in order to permeate the species, as it does.

One of the things I was trying to imagine after having read the book was, what would a fully non-conscious human really be like… one who’s behavior was dictated primarily by biological efficiency. I don’t think such an animal could actually pass for conscious, or prevail in competition with conscious beings.

On a crude level, if you’re talking about superior biological efficiency, simply voiding your bladder when the impulse begins is far more efficient than holding it in to avoid social awkwardness. I rather think the Watts Reconstituted Vampires would be more likely to appear infantile in this and other respects, despite their superior hunting skills.

Slightly less crude, I’m not sure a fully biologically efficient non-conscious being could adapt to the intricities of contemporary civilization, no mater how omni-autistic they were. In Watts’ premise, these animals evolved as predators of humans, all their non-conscious pattern recognition and predictive brilliance centered around hunting human prey. I doubt such a thing could be made to function among a complex population as depicted in the novel… it has no stake nor ability to appreciate any advantages to civilization. It has no fellow feeling for others of it’s kind, as it has no self awareness. As far as it is concerned, eating and processing nutrition to fulfill biological impulses would be the utter height of purposefulness.

I doubt that any degree of omni-autisitic brilliance could overcome such a narrow scale of ambition when confronted with mass organization that has the advantage of input by reflective consciousness.

I think it seems to me that, although consciousness does seem to be something of a deluded observer of the organism, rather than the pilot, these observations do eventually inform behavior after the fact. I don’t know if this is what really goes on in there, but it seems like the observer experiences action, judges it, imagines consequences or alternatives, which it then may come to strongly desire. This strong desire has some influence on the non-conscious actor in there, maybe by seeping into the connections the actor uses to receive stimulus from the senses, so that this consciously arrived at desire may have a tendency to tilt action in some general way.

Accumulated over a lifetime, this tilt manifests as things like which foreign language you took up in High School, what movie you decide to see next week, or even simple things like successful potty training.

In some way I think the conscious observer realizes it isn’t fully in control of its meatwagon. Tool use seems to me to be the first step down a long road toward replacing these grudgingly cooperative but independent non-conscious steeds with something that pays closer attention to the conscious commands of the rider.

What do you think?

All right, for all my gripes about the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth being a bit short on revolutionary notions, here’s something they tossed off on page 167 that whirled the gears in my head:

Vikram S. Kumar has been working with the Joslin Diabetes Center to design what he calls a “community-based, predictive game” for children with type I diabetes. DiaBetNet aims to develop mental models of their physiologies and motivate them to check their glucose levels more frequently. The game encourages diabetic kids, linked together wirelessly, to play on a computer to predict their own and others’ glucose levels. The idea is to “leverage untapped social dynamics” rather than relying entirely on doctor-patient instructions or parental nagging.
Revolutionary WealthAlvin and Heidi Toffler

If you’re interested in reading more, go here and here.

False-Color Composite of Lake Carnegie, Australia 1999 by Landsat 7 (NASA/USGS)
This false color picture of Lake Carnegie, Australia linked to from Pingnews.com’s Flickr photostream. The picture by NASA is in the public domain.

You know about false-color imaging? Taking a picture of something but altering the colors to illustrate some invisible aspect of the thing? You can show how hot a place is, or wet, or how many minerals of what kinds are present where.

It’s a simple and powerful trick. Map a more obvious or more appealing visual to a set of obscured data to expose the secret truth.

How many people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Shared, communal game environments proliferate. So far, elements of gameplay and player’s characteristics are tangentally, if at all, related to anything about their meatspace existence other than their discretionary cash.

But look what DiaBetNet is attempting, and imagine games where aspects of the players’ actual lives, habits and activities, were tied in some measurable way to gameplay. There is alot of talk about a coming wave of home use medical diagnostic devices. How about games where your real world cholesterol level, heart rate, athletic ability, habitual diet, vitamin intake and drug use were directly related to in-game prowess or to active game-play through the uploaded diagnostic information?

A small step, the Wii Fit.

But I’m thinking of something more comprehensive… something that could aggregate and compare vital statistics and diagnostic results with a massive online population to spot trends and danger signs. Where catching early signs of cancer or the onset of alzheimers in other players leads to rewards and where the whole connected system learns from it’s player-base as they use it to become more accurate, to incentivize improvements in healthy lifestyles, and to tell you when something is starting to go wrong, and point you to necessary resources.

But it can’t be some square Surgeon General approved slab of government health propaganda.

The diagnostic activity has to be converted by “false-color” conversion to game play metaphors, that maybe have nothing to do with health in any obvious way. Maybe the players won’t even fully know it. Optimize your diet to your body-type and age in the real world, and hidden levels of the game become available. Stop smoking, notice your experience points earned in raids are increased by some percentage. Do you have an in-game home territory? A castle maybe? The higher your risk of heart disease, the more rats in your castle.

The more of your (certified by some method like diagnostic devices or doctor transmitted information) medical history you make available to the game, the richer your experience. The game subtly and constantly evolves environmental challenges aimed at nudging players closer to their unique optimal health.

The game of life?