1. Paint By Number Culture

    Walking in any shop by the magazine aisle now feels like a Philip K Dick novel. I see magazines featuring people with mentions of going-ons in their life: a new baby, an argument with a spouse, a disruption of lifestyle. While these events are important to the person experiencing them, they matter little to a stranger. All these people on the magazines are strangers– I have no idea who they are, what they do and why I should care. Sometimes I feel as if I have slipped into an alternate universe where things are a bit different, such as Dewey defeated Truman or Buddy Holly is alive. I feel like a character in a Philip K Dick novel wondering how I ended up here and if I’ll need a canister of Ubik.

    I wonder who these people are and why they are famous or important. No one– even adoring fans– can tell me why.

    Ultimately it seems they are famous for being famous.

    In the BBC documentary Synth Britannia, part covered the rise of Gary Numan and his first breakaway hits. Gary Numan is as pop as they come, albeit a bit odd sometimes but still pop. Other electronic pop musicians were astounded as even in the same scene and location they had never heard of Numan. His music striked a few people, who told a few others, and soon he was on Top of the Pops in the UK performing. This is not the process today. I have no illusions that culture was driven by much more than sales in the past, but things are different. Rather than an artist’s ‘work’ attracting the attention of people, its just the artist. The son or daughter of a pop star, wrestler, or whatever is the commodity, not the work. The ‘work’ is added later– dubbed in, greenscreened, and composited as an afterthought. The usual formula for fame today consists of staring on a reality TV show such as American Idol or The Bachelor. From there it is up to the producers, investors, and executives to mold the person into whatever they think can bring a profit. Perhaps they consider themselves artists, crafting the pale facades dubbed the celebrity.

    I believe the celebrity is not art, its rudimentary mimicry or “Paint by Number.” Paint by Number, a once popular activity but by no means obscure, provided a canvas with predefined areas labeled by number. The owner of the kit could then fill in the shapes by following the directions. Few Paint by Number enthusiasts would call themselves artists as they were simply following a predefined set of metrics. Something similar happens with marketing and ad sales people: there is a set of definitions which are then executed. Like any system of finite input there will be only finite output: much like paint by number or computer programming. Garbage in, garbage out.

    The reduction of creativity seemingly spans across all forms of culture: music, movies, books– everything. As Jason Kottke noted, only one of the top twenty highest grossing movies in the 2000′s was an original screenplay not adapted from elsewhere: Finding Nemo.

    The rest were made by combing attributes geared towards profit. Take the Transformers franchise for example: take a popular toy, add a dash of explosionporn from Michael Bay, toss in a healthy portion of a sexy actress stir and taste the blockbuster. Oh, and a plot, well, that can just be kinda fudged in later. If I made soup like Hollywood makes movies I would simply add some of my favorite foods (say gin martini, salmon, curry, green tea ice cream, spicy brown mustard, and jalapenos) in a large pot and expect it to taste delicious. Somehow I don’t think gin, ice cream, spicy brown mustard and jalapenos go well.

    The result is culture products with carefully chosen content (Vampires, LOLcats, superheros, Twitter, ’80s retro) commodified into a package then distributed by a chosen ‘famous’ person who meets a similar set of trending buzzword statistical attributes. This is how a stock broker works, not an artist. We all know how successful those stock brokers are these days.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I have to finish something for Simon Cowell where he’s a vampire LOLcat superhero that uses Twitter in the ’80s.


  2. Sean Hannity Owes the Troops $2 Million+

    Mr. Richard Metzger over at Dangerous Minds chimed in yesterday with a reminder that there’s in excess of $2 million waiting for U.S. troops and their families.  The catch?  It’s money pledged to charity if Sean Hannity makes good on his promise to be waterboarded for charity.

    So what’s the hold up, Sean?  It’s not like you’d be the first journalist to be waterboarded under controlled circumstances.  It’s not like once it’s over it’ll happen another 182 times.

    Rhetorical question, of course.  Sean Hannity can dismiss the U.S.’s use of torture and make false macho claims because no one who listens to Sean Hannity actually expects him to go through with it.  People already listen to Sean Hannity despite the fact that he appears to be a marshmallow with a hairpiece and rabies.  Once you’re willing to get your news from a cartoon character, it’s not like you’re expecting a lot in terms of follow through on what said ‘mallow says he’ll do.  He’s good for the thirty seconds he’s barking out what you want to hear, playing the role, after that he can go home and get ready to do it again tomorrow.

    I feel I have some perspective on this because I almost drowned some years back.  I was young, couldn’t swim and I stepped in over my head and sunk.  It’s a strange thing feeling completely helpless, breathing water into paths meant for air, the body rioting against this perversion of processes.  The foremost thing in my mind, more frenzied and burning than what I’d call a thought, was the dissolution of every safe thing I had counted on up until that point.  As that I didn’t know if I was ever getting to breathe again, owing to the fact that I’m not a TV show host doing a stunt for charity, my life ended there, in ugly, unfinished pieces that were nothing because they couldn’t float.

    I was pulled off the bottom still waving my arms. It was good to be there, puking water on the grass, feeling it come out of my lungs all molten and acidic, the various panic juices shuddering around my body.

    But fuck it, for $2 million?  Going in knowing I’d be saved?  Well, that’s a lot of phone cards, body armor, wet naps and gaps in the rent plugged for military families.

    What it comes down to is that to be drowned is to be proved unequivocally wrong.  What you thought about what it would feel like is wrong.  There’s no way to shrug it off with a rehearsed smile, puke up some water and say “Oh, it’s a little splash in the face.”

    No.  That’s where the whole big facade comes crashing down.  And well, you can’t do that on television.  Not on Hannity’s show.


  3. One Drawing for Every Page of Moby Dick

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    Matt Kish is redecorating the interior of the Melville classic Moby Dick.

    In August of 2009, I was really restless. I remembered seeing a book where the artist Zak Smith had made one illustration for every page of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. I was really blown away by how amazing his art was, and by the whole idea in general, so a while later I decided to try the same thing myself. Only instead of Gravity’s Rainbow I decided to work on my favorite novel, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

    Before this, most of the art I made had been excessively detailed, really overwrought, and incredibly time consuming to complete. I got really sick of working like that. I wanted something different, so I decided that for the Moby-Dick project I would do one piece a day, every day, until I was done. And I have a full time job too. And a wife. And a life. For me, that kind of pace was almost inconceivable. I decided to just do whatever I wanted with the art, even if it looked crude or raw. After all, I had no one to please or disappoint but myself.

    Impulsively, I grabbed the first paperback edition of Moby-Dick I could find, which turned out to be the Signet Classic edition from 1992 with 552 pages. Looking back, maybe I should have thought things through a bit more since I’ve seen quite a few editions with around 400 pages, which would have saved me an awful lot of time. But that’s the way things turned out and that’s the edition I am sticking with even though it will take me at least a year and half of constant and daily work to complete. Probably more. I seem to be able to average about 20 to 25 pieces per month. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

    I often do the same sort of thing as a project starter.  Rather than go out and buy a blank notebook, I find a hardcover book that has nothing to do with my subject and spend an afternoon defacing it.  Redacting lines, smearing pages with whiteout.  Removing two out of three pages, pasting in pictures or jagged burst of text from my digital notes on the project.  It’s a good way to stimulate left field thoughts, as that the bits left in from the source material can bounce off your notes in useful ways.  May I recommend scooping up some old encyclopedias from the street or relieving a used bookstore of a Stephen Coonts novel? (auto-audio warning on that Coonts link)

    Anyway, very cool project.  Watch this Kish guy, he’s got a blog/RSS to keep up to date on his progress.  More after the jump.

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  4. MK1 MIDI Controller at ITP NIME 2009

    MK 1 MIDI Guitar at ITP NIME 2009 from Aaron Cael on Vimeo.

    Headed out to the NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) show this past Tuesday to do a little fitful start of the actual journalism thing. Shot a lot of blurry video so there’s more to come.

    Above’s a little number that got mentioned on the Make blog this week: the MK 1 MIDI controller. Ain’t that sweet looking? The blurb on the show flyer sez:

    The MK 1 is a programmable MIDI controller in a familiar form factor. Comprised of 32 LED pushbuttons and six touch-sensitive copper plates, the MK 1 allows the user to control music synthesizers by means other than a traditional keyboard.

    Finally an upgrade to enable the keytar player to actually get laid after the show. Excellent. We need those guys breeding.

    More on this later as I slice things up and ask some questions.  Musical sewing machines! A dodecahedron sequencer! Badly recorded audio! In the meantime, here’s a flickr gallery one of the performers shot


  5. The Write Channel

    Giant leaf fell on a boy. Mayor ate too much and got sick. Kid bites dog. Grammar gets mangled.

    The Write Channel chronicled the not-so-gonzo journalism career of insect reporter R.B. Bug, spitting out the facts on a 70s local newscast under the watchful eye of editor/anchor Red Green.  No, not that Red Green.

    R.B. covered surreal events around town in a basic, straight-laced manner, suitable for illiterates and the E.S.L. classroom.  That’d be where I encountered this fine bit of educational programming.  Though I was already sawing my way through Isaac Asimov, in 4th grade they sat our narrow asses down in rows to watch our weekly installment of a stop-motion bug talking with all the speed and juicy detail of a Midwesterner with a concussion. (Yeah I went there, Minneapolis.)

    Still, credit is due for the end bit (the ominously named The Club) that goads viewers to fiction, finishing the epic tale of the Man Who Lost His Sack.  Interactive fiction with 1978 broadcast technology.

    After the cut, another clip where Red Green gets personal…

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  6. The Peanut Butter Solution: Childhood's Real Bad Dream

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    Here’s the plot: A young boy goes to a burned down mansion and meets the ghosts of the homeless squatters that died in the fire. As a result he acquires “the Fright” and all of his hair falls out. The ghosts visit him in a dream and give him a recipe involving peanut butter to restore his hair. Overnight he gets a full head of hair, and his buddy feels inspired to put it on his balls. Their hair grows really long and they get suspended for distracting others from their head and ball hair. Then see the main kid’s hair so long he can barely move (fortunately they did not show his buddy) and he passes out. Somehow by screaming at his hair it stops growing. Problem solved– but no. A pissed off art teacher who hates kids and imagination (naturally two things an art teacher should hate) kidnaps all of the children and forces them to make brushes with the main character’s hair. Oh, and when those brushes are used whatever they paint becomes real. Of course one child draws the mansion and “the Fright” is passed from the kid to the art teacher who is then arrested. Of course.

    What?

    That’s the plot. If it sounds like a bizarre, demented dream then you are not the only one. The vast majority of people who have seen this schizophrenic nightmare of a movie assume it was a bad dream. Most children, even if they lack the vocabulary, think “What the fuck” upon seeing this film.

    The plot, if you could call it that, are vignettes of various childhood nightmares strung together by the very weak thread of the same actors throughout. Possibly this Canadian ‘masterpiece’ surpasses even Lynch or Cronenberg as disturbing– because of its sincerity of telling a bat guano crazy story to small children. The theatrical trailer insists its fun for the whole family, but I sincerely doubt that.


  7. Wonderworks Presents: Konrad

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    Spacey Earth mother type receives someone else’s mail.  Surprisingly, mail is not a half kilo of uncut yayo but a barrel containing a dessicated lab-grown boy and a packet of nutrient gel.  Mom’s bad with instructions, the Factory gets steamed that this mistaken delivery is quirking out their prized specimen, Ned Beatty is somehow involved.  Hilarity ensues.

    This would be another bit of children’s programming most commonly remembered through the haze of a fever dream, the sort of thing that was always playing on PBS at 2 PM on the day you stayed home sick from school.  It bears the Wonderworks stamp, placing it in the company of other book to TV adaptations as the original Chronicles of Narnia and the Hoboken Chicken Emergency.  I’m pretty sure this is the first movie I ever snobbishly asserted was better as a book than as a movie.  Still, where else are you going to get a good show about unexpectedly finding a kid in a barrel that doesn’t involve a serial killer?

    If nothing else, the lead is a kid with the stage name of Huckleberry Fox–with a post-acting IMDB bio to rival that of super genius Mayim Bialik. (Is that the first Blossom reference on here?  Won’t be the last.)

    After some furious googling, I came up short on a video clip.  Damnation.  Well, if you’re prepared to drop $20 on a VHS, Amazon has you covered.  And if you’ve got your own copy, be a good internet citizen and get a bit of it on YouTube will ya?

    And just so you don’t feel stiffed, after the cut is some Hoboken Chicken Emergency.
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  8. Winter of the Witch

    Was anyone else subjected to this 16mm reel of insanity?

    My elementary school was a frequent abuser of the mass control tactic of dropping all the kids in a room with a janitor or reading aide and putting on a movie while the teachers had a meeting or snuck out to the bar or whatever.  If it was a school-wide thing, they’d drop us all in the cafeteria and put on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory or Beethoven’s 2nd, reasoning that there were lessons to be learned from watching creepy Machiavellian Gene Wilder kill off annoying children or just gazing deeply into Charles Grodin’s baseball mitt-like face.  This sort of impromptu movie day was also a pretty solid signal that a teacher had died and they were figuring out how to spring the news on us.

    Beethoven says “Say it with Puppies!”

    At any rate, the above masterwork, Winter of the Witch, would get loaded into the chattery old 16mm projector on slow afternoons in grades 1-3.  I won’t spoil the twist ending for you, save to say that the underlying theme seems to be just as enthusiastically pro-hallucinogen consumption as your average Joe Rogan interview.  In retrospect, following this with D.A.R.E. kind of seems like a mixed message.

    Narrated by Burgess Meredith!  You can’t go wrong!


  9. Tomes & Talisman: A Library WTF Venture

    Tomes_&_Talismans_LogoProduced by Mississippi ETV in 1986, Tomes & Talisman presented library and research concepts with a scifi drama. Ms. Bookhart, a librarian from the world of 2123 compiles with her compatriots a library of all human knowledge– which incidentally is in book form and about the size of an average high school library.

    Humans were forced off Earth by a race called “The Wipers” who have drunken frat boy at a Midwestern tailgating party level technology: as in yell and throw things. So naturally faced up against the hooligans humans have to evacuate. Bookhart’s library is missing one book, so she sets out in the bookmobile hours before the last evacuation to find it.

    Bookhart then meets a deus ex machina generic cloaked spirt guy with magic powers who puts her to sleep for 100 years called “The Universal Being.” Oh, then there are these Nordic Anglo Saxon looking aliens who love jumpsuits and headbands called “The Users” whom she takes back to the library.

    Confused? I sure as hell was when I saw this in the early 1990′s in elementary school. A sincere attempt at educational television, but it seemed both worthless and frightening.

    Already card catalogs were gone replaced by terminals. I was also confused why the hell we were watching this low budget postapocalyptic bizarro fest paleofuture where teleportation, space travel, and microfilm are real but computers are not.

    As PBS educational television icon Lavar Burton said “you don’t have to take my word for it.” Here’s part 1 of 13.


  10. Only NanoBot STDs Can Save the Whales!

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    Whale penises are big these days.  (Pun!)

    Perhaps the greatest metric of humankind’s power is that not only have we trashed fat tracts of the 30% of the Earth that we run around on but we’ve somehow managed to screw up the 70% we can’t even live in.  Yes friend, the ocean’s got problems.  Human impact has crashed populations of sea life, leaving us in a situation where once common fish on the menu may be extinct within our lifetimes.  Meanwhile, sushi is more popular than ever, especially among the well-informed and well-meaning types most likely to cry while watching The Cove.

    While river dolphins are undeniably fucked, ocean dolphins are plentiful enough to use as jet ski ramps, if that’s your cup of tea, without danger of wiping them out.  The most compelling reason not to eat dolphin is that they are a high-end predator and thus accumulate dangerous levels of mercury in their system.  That’s besides the whole honor among thieves idea that makes eating other predatory mammals mostly taboo.

    But this is only sort of about that.  What I really wanted to talk about was self-replicating swarms of medical nanobots.

    Y’see, the debate over hunting whales involves opposing forces slinging around very different numbers about whale behavior and population size.  Due to the fact that the ocean is reeeeeeally freakin’ huge, hard numbers are hard to come by and you can pretty much cook the books as much as you want to come up with your own personal story called The Truth about Whales.  Add that to the dispute over the best methods of surveying whale populations (Greenpeace favors binoculars while the Japanese trust their harpoon guns) and it’s clear that there’s a need for better methods of close observation of marine life.

    Mulling this over, it hit me.  If we’re living in an age where Italians can put tiny robot spiders in our colons (“hey sailor!”), who’s to say we’re that far off from spreading the robot love with other species?  Picture it: biologists dart a whale, infecting it with a few colonies of nano-bots that take up residence on the surface of it’s skin, like barnacles.  They are programed to assemble more of their kind from whale meal gleanings and other bits of miscellaneous sea soup, massing a new colony down in the whales nether regions or by it’s head, transferring a starter colony to a new host whale when the whales rub together.  A little cetacean bump and grind and we’ve got nanobots traveling throughout the pod, allowing scientists to monitor more and more individuals.

    Each bot colony could have specialized members, some devoted to replication, some storing data, and some with sensors to monitor whale position, age, health, etc.  Once a certain amount of data is collected, a small transmitter buoy could be assembled and launched once the host whale reaches the surface.  Lazy scientists could just have observations beamed to them, routed into their RSS readers like we do now with cute cat pictures.

    Of course a big factor standing in the way of this is that we don’t know a whole hell of a lot about wild whale health, what with them being creatures of the mysterious depths and all.  Unleashing self-assembling cyborg STDs on another species is a pretty damn big deal, potentially a cross-species Tuskegee Experiment.  But since when has near-complete ignorance been an impediment to a gnarly tech rollout?  Nanobot STDs could be this era’s DDT, a character-building experience this generation has been lacking.

    So wrap that rascal, cetaceans.  Who knows if that fine Minke has got robo-herpes.