• "Let’s say the computers I was working with had been powerful enough for me to do my experiments in real time. I’m not at all sure that I would have made the discovery! Because the condition under which I was working, on a time-share machine, a few seconds of sound might take me nearly two hours. So the time it took, perhaps specifically the time between experiments, I had to think. These were discrete times: I would generate a sample of a sound that was 20 Hz, with a modulating frequency of 20 Hz and a deviation of 100 Hz. Then I would wait. Then I would listen. Then I would increase to another. If I’d had continuous control, I think I probably would have missed it. I could have let the carrier sweep through frequencies that were way too high, and I would have missed the points where they converged to harmonic spectra. That being the case, the fact that I had to sit and wait and think, and listen, and then think about what I heard, “what will be the next step?” greatly enhanced my ability in realizing the discovery." John Chowning on how not having realtime feedback was an asset, rather than a problem.
  • "This course is an advanced seminar in the anthropology of attention. What makes the
    anthropology of attention different from other ways of studying attention (e.g.
    psychology) is that we study it as a social and cultural phenomenon: attention is not just a matter of individual minds selecting objects from environments. Rather, attention is collectively organized and valued. We learn how to pay attention and what to pay
    attention to from other people; other people make technological and media systems to
    intentionally organize collective attention. We learn to value certain kinds of attention
    (e.g. intense focus on work, mindfulness, or multi-tasking) and to criticize others (e.g.
    absent-mindedness, distraction, intense focus on entertainment) in cultural contexts. So, while we will be experimenting with our own attentions throughout this course, we will remember that our attentions are not really our own. No one pays attention alone." This paper sounds brilliant.
  • "When I was about a year old or so, my father took me into his office for the day. My father was a computer scientist, and he worked for a weird little startup that didn’t make any money. I remember going in there as a kid and thinking the people dressed strange.
    At some point during that day, my dad played with me with a tennis ball. John Lasseter, an artist who worked with him, watched us, and suddenly the short film he had been trying to figure out was right in front of him. Using my actions, proportions and personality as a model for his main character, Lasseter created the short film “Luxo Jr.”" Via Jason Kottke; this is a touching story. I always love watching this film.
  • "One way to illustrate that most technologies are, in fact, pretty "hi," is to ask yourself of any manmade object, Do I know how to make one?

    Anybody who ever lighted a fire without matches has probably gained some proper respect for "low" or "primitive" or "simple" technologies; anybody who ever lighted a fire with matches should have the wits to respect that notable hi-tech invention." Ursula le Guin with strong truth about technology and science fiction.

  • "In time I wasn’t plugging in my newly arrived modules so quickly. I was spending more time looking at them, admiring their structures, noting aspects unique to various individual companies. Some modules have lovely design flourishes, bits of fantastic line art right there on the circuit board, so enticing it threatens to give “cyberpunk” a good name all over again. Others have funny little phrases, puns on functionality, like where the power supply goes, or little axioms that both gently mock and encourage the beholder—Barbara Kruger by way of circuitry. This is what I now first look for when I unpack a new module." Really nice Marc Weidenbaum piece on the aesthetics and semantics of circuit-board design.


07 June 2017

Along with hip-hop, sitcoms, and the economy, screen savers flourished during the Clinton years…

Zack Hatfield’s article from the Paris Review on screensavers turns out to be quite wonderful. I like passing that quotation from it around to introduce it, because it made me laugh, but the whole thing is thoughtful, and wonderful. And it made me think:

You can’t consume a screen saver in an instant. You can’t fast-forward or rewind one. The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy. Fugitives from time, screen savers possess no real beginning or end. Their ouroboric nature is perhaps why preservations on YouTube, whether ten minutes or twelve hours long, tend to evoke disenchantment.

Screensavers are anti-images.

Susan Sontag, in On Photography, remarked that a photograph describes “a neat slice of time, not a flow.” But if you take Hatfield’s point – that the screensaver only makes sense in its infinite form, summoned unbid, and existing until it is dismissed… then a screensaver is only ever flow. The act of quoting a screensaver is inadequate, almost impossible. Which takes me back to Sontag, who goes on to describe a photograph as a quotation: “a photograph could be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations“.

A screensaver cannot be meaningfully sliced; it cannot ever become quotation. A photograph is a choice of a single moment of time, and thus, implicitly, a rejection of surrounding moments. But Hatfield describes screensavers as if they only ever are surrounding moments, each a moment leading to another. And they resist comparison to film, to: they are elliptical, not structured, not ongoing. There is art film that probably stands comparison best: for instance, Christian Marclay’s The Clock functions as an ongoing, 24-hour loop, and precisely works because it has no formal beginning and end. (It feels a little trite to describe The Clock as a screensaver, and yet it would make the most wonderful screensaver – a little world running in parallel that only emerges when you step away from a screen).

And: I liked his description of screensavers invoking “rapture and reverie, and stillness“; how appropriate that something designed to be continuously, but unobtrusively, changing, should be a meditation upon stillness.

When you put it like that: screensavers are our only functional perpetual motion machines.