Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Places We Make For Ourselves

Last time I was in France I tried desperately to get to the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, but was unable to make the 5-hour trip from where I was staying - and have regretted it since. My parents have been several times, and brought back pictures and posters which I stare at every time I use their bathroom; but the actual experience, which by all accounts is surprisingly intimate and mysteriously private, is not mine to claim.

A Facteur is a postman, used like an honorific, and this "Ideal Palace" was built by one Ferdinand Cheval, starting when he was forty-three years old and finishing thirty-three years later. The inspiration for the building of this dream was an odd one:

"He tripped on a bizarre and beautiful stone in the road along his mail route and bent to pick it up. Looking about, he was surprised to see that such marvelous stones were scattered all around him, and he pocketed them to find a use for them at home. "From that moment," he says in a letter from 1897, "I did not sleep day or night." He continued his search on his daily 32 kilometer route (adding 10 km to search for more stones), first putting his treasures in his pockets, then in a wheelbarrow. He scoured the countryside for days and nights at a time on his mail route, sleeping in farmhouses and under the stars. He stock-piled the stones he brought back in his yard, which convinced his neighbors that he had gone mad, but he was determined to build the castle and grottoes that had populated his dreams 15 years earlier -- dreams he never told a soul about, fearing people would ridicule him. Cheval was a mailman by day and an architect by night, building his palace of stones and intricately carved concrete with little available light and no assistance from anyone." [from Kristin Fiore's fine website about same]

The Palais Idéal was put together from wire, lime, and cement, working by the light of an oil lamp. When they found out he wanted to be buried there with his wife, the local government protested and insisted he be buried in the consecrated cemetery; so at the age of seventy-six he began work on a mausoleum that took eight years to build; he died a year after he had finished it.

What is it that drives people to build these things, to express their creativity by building? Outsider art is a big thing these days, but for many, many years it was simply the expression of one person's eccentricity, often at the expense of their social credibility. Raw Vision, a journal of outsider art and folk art, had an article recently about the visionary environments found in the rare, vintage postcard collections of two collectors. Among others, there are postcards of the Palais Idéal, the Hotel of Old Plates in Seine Maritime, France, and Agnes Jones' Boneyard (see below). There are photos of the Shell Fence in Florida, The Living, Speaking Church of Mesnil-Gondouin, and the Mont-Cindre Hermitage in Rhone, France. A lot of the images in the article have a similar look: a complex, pebbly, "grown" look, like the dribble sand-castles we used to make when I was a child. They bear a remarkable resemblance to Gaudi's Cathedral in Barcelona.

The article begins this way:

"The rapid spread of photography from the late nineteenth century onwards meant that for the first time ordinary people could commission a visual record of themselves and their family in the same way as only the wealthy had been able to do before. The combination of this with the introduction of universal postal services and widespread railway travel resulted in photographs of every day scenes, popular figures, important events and local curiosities being printed and widely distributed as picture postcards. These postcards were produced in their millions but were some of the the earliest records of what are now termed as Outsider Art or Visionary Environments. Many of them have survived over the years and portray a variety of long lost creations with others that still exist to this day."

And so these eccentric creations get caught in time.

How long have people been driven to build such intimately bizarre masterpieces? Has this been a product of the modern world, or is it part of the human condition, that a certain number of the population must express themselves this way? America is sprinkled with the oddities that have sprung from the wild imaginings of a nation of frontierists, people insisting on being themselves because that's what "being American" is all about (traditionally): going your own way and having the freedom to express yourself, dammit! But I was impressed with the number of French visionary places, never mind that one of the collectors appears to be French, and it made me wonder.

And then, on looking into it, I find there are people like Nek Chand, who was a (surprise, surprise) a "humble transport official in the north Indian city of Chandigarh", who felt driven to clear a piece of jungle to make himself a garden, and then couldn't stop, going on to build several acres of courtyards with sculptures and walkways:

"After his normal working day Chand worked at night, in total secrecy for fear of being discovered by the authorities.When they did discover Chand's garden, local government officials were thrown into turmoil. The creation was completely illegal - a development in a forbidden area which by rights should be demolished. The outcome, however, was the enlightened decision to give Nek Chand a salary so that he could concentrate full-time on his work, plus a workforce of fifty labourers. Nek Chand's great work received immediate recognition and was inaugurated as The Rock Garden of Chandigarh."

Or, in Los Angeles, my favorite attraction - Watts Towers, the creation of Simon Rodia, about which the excellent film I Build The Tower was made. The towers are made of steel pipes and rods, around which wire mesh has been wrapped and coated with mortar, and decorated with mosaics made from broken bits of glass and pottery, as well as many found objects such as bed frames and seashells.

In 1959, "...the city of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed. An actor, Nicholas King, and a film editor, William Cartwright, visited the site...[they] saw the neglect, and decided to buy the property for $3,000 in order to preserve it. When the city found out about the transfer, it decided to perform the demolition before the transfer went through. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, and a curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, along with area architects, artists, and community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures.

For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure."

Agnes Jones, an ex-slave known as "Aunt Aggie", built a garden in Florida with fences, arches, and trellises made from bones wired together in fanciful ways:

"Bones bordered the white-sand walkways and formed an arcade between the front gate and the Joneses' house". There was also an informal natural history museum inside, which contained snakes preserved in jars and alligator skeletons, as well as a human skeleton hung in the hallway. No human bones were ever used in the structures, however, as Aggies was quick to explain to her visitors. Visitors are said to have loved the mixture of lush flora and sepulchral structures; "they wrote their names and addresses on the bones; children gazed on the strange beauty of the place with awe and admiration. You could buy flowers and good things to eat, have your fortune told, and hear a good story or be reminded of Aggie's favorite Bible verses".

Unlike Watts' Towers, the Boneyard was torn down in 1918 to build a high school.

And did I mention bottle houses? Or tin can houses, which are being proposed as a cheap building material (not to mention their artistic qualities)? Or how about Loy Allen Bowlin, the Rhinestone Cowboy, who made incredible interiors, exteriors, and clothes? The list goes on and on of people getting creative with their environments.

One of The Rhinestone Cowboy's interiors

I find myself thinking, reading about these fanciful places and the great sculptures, structures, doohickeys, and environments people create, and wondering how many things like this have been created - and lost - throughout history? How many of our historic and archeological discoveries are really just some eccentric's creation, lost in the sands of time? Or is it only in modern times, as the need for survival began to retreat and people had a little more leisure time, more access to materials, that people began to experiment like this?

Is it a product of mass culture, of mass-built housing and mechanized production? Or is it simply that before modernity people built what they built, and lived in it, be it eccentric or not?

Makes me want to go out and build something. There's some great rocks out back...

other links:

- Roadside America's links to Florida oddities
- Anna's Bottle House, a funky and interesting inn near Tucson, Arizona - built of bottles

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

All That the Rains Bring

It is finally starting to be mushroom season here. The rains come through, though still not often enough, and the air is chill. The grass is starting to sprout, and the acorns have ceased hammering down on everything. The need to water the garden has finally worn off, and the fear of fire. Socks have once again come on the scene, to my children's dismay. There is frost in the valley three mornings a week. We go musseling, and come back with reddened fingers and hot bodies from the walk along the beach.

I know this does not sound like winter to most people. To the majority of Americans and Europeans, winter means ice and the death of greenery. Green is for springtime, when the ground thaws, or summer, when thunderstorms roll through after a hot spell.

But here in Northern California, winters are chilly, not cold, and so this is the season when things come alive: the moss on the trunks of the oak trees goes emerald from the rain, the grass begins to grow like a mist over the hills, and the naked ladies poke their green up along the banks of roads. We walk in rubber boots through the lengthening grass, heavy with drops; we wear sweaters and rain ponchos. It may not be frozen, but it can be tiresome, being wet for a whole season; sometimes I envy people in the deep cold, who stay dry in their low temperatures. There is something about cold water trickling into your inner clothing, and the constant presence of mud, which can get to you after awhile.

We have a Mediterranean climate, which means really only two seasons, wet and cold, and warm/hot and dry (and by dry, I mean the grass goes blonde, then grey; your nose gets dried out inside; your plants all die if you don't water deeply twice a week - and there is no rain for between five and nine months: everything dies back, goes into stasis). Spring is simply the moment when the air gets warm but the ground has not yet dried out, and autumn is when the air begins to get cold but the rains haven't come yet. Those areas where there are actually four distinct seasons always find this odd, this "lack" of seasons.

It's true that it's weird, living in a place where the leaves don't turn in the fall and there is no snow in the winter - but it's not because we miss them. Not at all. It's weird because we are constantly barraged with images and words about what it's supposed to be like. Snowmen, vast swaths of turning leaves, crocuses; these have no meaning here. All the conventions of our culture are caught up in a Northeastern perspective, a prejudice toward the "norm", which seems to be somewhere in Massachussetts. Children's books represent an entirely inaccurate world to the Western children who are reading them; seasonal cards, gardening books, and magazines misrepresent was is likely or even possible in our climate. It is as if we are colonists on another planet, yet living according to the rhythms of the home planet, the home propaganda.

Still, though we don't fit the Home-world's view of normalcy, or even the Pagan idea of summer equaling life and winter equaling death, we do have our own rhythms, our own discreet seasonal characteristics. For example, this year, in our area, the chanterelle mushrooms are late (last year, they were nonexistent, but that's another story). The candy caps, another kind of mushroom, are sprinkled everywhere, and king boletes will follow soon after; toward the spring (or our version thereof), the horn-of-plentys will be hiding themselves among the detritus of the madrone trees. Mussels abound in the winter tides, and evil non-native crayfish continue to climb inside our traps. Miner's lettuce springs up everywhere; ferns uncurl their buds for us to pick. There are still baskets full of California hazelnuts, and if we wanted to eat the native acorn meal there would be a whole winters' worth of it available. Winter is a time of unfurling, of strange abundance, of cold and happy movement.

Summer, on the other hand, is nature's empty time here, a time of drought and fire peril and little native harvest. No flowers bloom, nothing lives without tending. Our small vegetable plots need constant attendance to keep them alive through the heat and the dryness. There are no walks in the woods looking for bounty, only looking for shade, watching for smoke. The red tides come and shellfish are forbidden. The ground is hard and unforgiving, so even looking for roots would be difficult. By October we are watching the endless parade of hot days anxiously, cocking a weather eye to the flame-fanning wind, crossing our fingers against arson.

I often wonder what it must be like for the other colonists, the ones on the planet Louisiana, for example, living with their swamps and their gardenias. Do they read the Home-world's books, listen to the Home-world's broadcasts? Give each other cards with snowmen on them at this time of year? How do they feel about their lack of seasons?

Or that far-orbiting Australia, world of Christmas barbecues? Do they tire of the messages coming in on the ansible, telling them they are backwards, wrong, out-of-step with the real seasons? Or do they simply ignore the Americans and Europeans telling them these things, and make their own cards, their own books?

To all my fellow-colonists, and to those of you on the Home-world who would like to become colonists: beware. For out here, the Home-world plants sicken and die; the children don't learn the arts of Home-world clothing; the old arts are lost. But there are wonders beyond imagining: the lightning-fire orange of the endless poppies at the break between Wet and Dry, the yellow-bellied newts migrating to some unknown place, the electric buzz of the hard summer sky around the edges of the trees. The first chanterelle, which I found today. If the Home-world abandoned us now, I think we could find our way, if we only looked around us at what is here.

How is it with you others, in your far-flung worlds?

As for us, we are on the verge of bounty.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Ponderables

The holidays are eating me alive, but I leave you with these things to wonder about until after the rush:

- North Dakota is becoming one big, beautiful and sad Wunderkammer (to read about it, click on the link at the right). Here is a beautiful book on same, from photographer Steve Fitch.

- The largest diamond ever found was over 3,000 carats. So if you're thinking of buying someone diamonds for Christmas, think on that before you blow your pocketbook (more on this topic after the holidays).

- Give the gift of weirdness: shopdropping at Christmastime.

- Chickens prefer to lay eggs in nests that already have eggs. Thus the age-old use of porcelain/clay/stone eggs, leading to more decorative specimens.

On a less savory note (caution: if squeamish or lacking weird humor, stop here):

- Quotes from a 5-year-old:
"The god of the creek has shorts and a see-through suitcase with swim stuff inside it, just in case the water gets too deep."
"I think your butt-hole is secretly elastic." (This from the author of the Butt Trilogy)

- If you have not heard of the Benny Lava phenomenon, here's your chance, complete with lexicon analysis, plus MySpace page and so on - but it's not funny. No, really.

Okay, that's all the weirdness in my brain at the moment. The rest is steeped in holiday etceteras. I hope you all have an excellent period of excess and twinkling lights.

Monday, December 17, 2007

LilyPads and Wearable Electronics

This evening I accidentally came across the website of one Leah Buechley, a woman who may change the face of clothing as we know it.

Long ago, I got a BA in Art, with dual emphases in Conceptual Design (read: early computer graphics and concept follow-through) and textiles. I tried, in every way I knew how, to combine the two: I made weavings out of wires, adding LEDs and plugs; I learned about their new computerized loom, I thought long and hard about how to get computerized technology into fabric. But it was too early, the technology was too clunky, and everyone was looking at me like I was a lunatic, so eventually I gave up.

Imagine my pleasure at coming across Ms. Buechley's wonderful DIY site, where she shows you how you, too, can create amazing interactive clothing with the LilyPad Arduino, a washable, flexible fabric circuit system you sew together with conductive thread, so that your whole body becomes circuitry, and, for example, if you move your arm quickly it sets off LEDs in your clothes. Or: if you put your coat on, your clothes go dark. Take it off, your clothes light up. Best of all, you can use things like snaps to keep the circuitry going when you attach things together.

The RGB LED chages color in response to motion and tilt from the accelerometer which is sewn to the right wrist.

I'm telling you: this woman is smart.

The Arduino is "an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators" (See more here).

It's hard to describe how this is different from previous interactive clothing. For one thing, she has come at it from a textile person's perspective, redesigning the whole circuitry thing to look like...well, parts of clothes. For another thing, all the pieces in the group of items (she calls it a "kit", but they are all sold separately) seem to be made as patches, with iron-on circuitry; and there are no wires or weird bits that you have to hide or otherwise deal with (Though the picture of the LilyPad for sale seems harder than the one above. I'll have to find out about that - still, it's not much bigger than a quarter).

Ms. Buechley helps you access the materials, and shows, in clear step-by-step instructions, not only how to use the LilyPad and attendant bits, but things like how to use needle-nosed pliers to turn a regular LED into a decorative sew-on bead, so you can have as many LEDs flashing across your clothing as you want. And she has lots of Flickr pics to look at, too.

She says:

"I am interested in integrating "feminine" activities like sewing with computer science, mathematics and technology. I think that social issues more often than lack of talent discourage women from entering math, technology and science related fields, and I hope to help create environments where women's interests are explored and represented."

Her kits for kids are available for only $15 to make little wearable LED items for themselves (with a little help). I have been trying very hard to find ways to make the robotics curriculum I teach at the local school into something more exciting for girls; their interest, always fickle, waxes and wanes depending on the personality of the students. Not only could we do the kids' kit, but then we could move on to real programming, using the LilyPad itself. This is a sure-fire technological way to get girls' attention, for those of you out there with smart daughters or sisters. In fact, this is a sure-fire way to get my attention. I can't wait to start making stuff.

Finally, after all these years.

Buy the LilyPad development kit from SparkFun

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Call for Wunderkammern: an UnContest

My kitchen Cabinet: a taxonomy of food?

I'm looking into people who have their own Wunderkammern, or Cabinets of Wonder, with the view of featuring a select few on the blog. Send me pictures (up to four of them) and an explanation of how you started it and why you did it.

I am particularly interested in hearing what you think about what it takes to create a Wunderkammer. What is the most important feature in making one? The taxonomy? The size? The labels? Or is it the exquisiteness of what is displayed? Or perhaps it is simply that it matters to the person making it? How is a Wunderkammer different from a museum display? Tell me about it.

Email me at the address under the "About Me" header, below. I will answer everyone, and if I am particularly taken with yours I may email you asking more questions.

Looking forward to seeing the results!

The Unknown Museum

Years ago, my college friends and I used to take trips up to Mill Valley to visit the Unknown Museum, an amazing collection of stuff arranged in a house which looked, from the outside, like a typical Mill Valley home...except there was a bunch of stuff in the yard. Stuff like stacked TVs, bowling balls, and baby dolls transformed the outdoor space, so that walking by, you had a peep of something amazing.

Going inside on one of the few days it was open was overwhelming to the eye: an aquarium full of Mr. Potato Heads, stacks and stacks of old lunch boxes, rooms and rooms of toys, dolls, plastic bits; mannequins and glitter-balls and every kind of thing from fake food to electronic parts. Nothing seemed to be single. It all came in multiples, sometimes in the hundreds: this Museum was a Wunderkammer of post-consumer detritus. Things were not only displayed in tanks, towers, and piles but in fascinating tableaus where mannequins sat down with TV dinner trays full of vacuum tubes, or a bride-mannequin crawled across a landscape of tiny bridal figures who seem to be tying her down, Gulliver-style.

The Unknown Museum, as it was called, lived in an old radiator shop in Mill Valley from 1974 to 1985; its founder, Mickey McGowan, believes in having lots of stuff. "I always thought that if your mom threw it away, the Unknown Museum was the place to come. Once I tried to create a sort of Zen space there, a room that was spare and austere, but when I'd go in there I'd go nuts wondering what I should put in. Gor me the perfect Zen space is jammed with all kinds of stuff. Zen is all one, isn't it? Well this is all one, the purity of allness." (thanks to Image Magazine for the quote).

After twelve years, the Museum lost its lease, and Mr. McGowan moved the whole museum to the residential neighborhood that I remembered visiting, a place he felt was perfect for the Museum, having a sort of Beaver Cleaver/Ozzie Nelson flavor to it. The different rooms of the house became theme rooms: a boy's room "crammed with chemistry sets, sports equipment, war toys and insect collections; the girl's room had stacks of Nancy Drew mysteries, worn ballet shoes, jump ropes, wedding dress dolls and Katy Keene comics..."

Trapped on the way to the wedding, while everyone watches in anticipation: the landscape around the Bride is made of heaps of rice

Yet the art of the place was not simply in its sheer collecting madness, but in the way that McGowan placed everything. Nothing was overlooked. He used volumes of stuff as a kind of space-painting, creating awesome displays that overwhelmed with their numbers - but he also paid attention to theme and worked asthetically to arrange things so that they had humor and looked...well, artistic. It's rare for someone with Mr. McGowan's bent to really put so much thought and artistry into their collection of stuff, really treat it as a Wunderkammer - in how it is arranged, how it is displayed. The whole art of crafting a proper Cabinet is to be found, not only in the asthetic presentation of things, but in the personal quality of the taxonomy. So often people who love collecting tend to file their stuff away in boxes, or stack them up like Scrooge McDuck all around their room or in some kind of storage, following some external taxonomy of value or meaning; but to put it all together, to present it in a personal, whimsical, commentative style, so that people can gasp and wonder at the sheer awe of it, is really something.

And to do so with objects that most of us do not admire or feel have value is especially impressive. I would not, if you told me of this place, think that it sounded very inspiring; but the care and order of it, the gimcrack-ish depths of our own associations with what some would call junk, makes us pause, makes us wonder.

Which is the point, isn't it? Plus, making it funny is always a bonus.

The Mill Valley house was a great place, with a wonderful garden, but eventually Mr. McGowan had to move again. He put most of his stuff in storage and moved into a railway car (still decorated, of course) in Mill Valley for awhile. When I talked to him recently, he was living in a house at an undisclosed location in Marin, which he said was done up much the same as before but which he no longer opened to the public. It's a shame, because it was truly a service for people, saying to us: "Here is your unwanted, your discarded: it is your past, your childhood - and see how it can be made wonderous?"

Which is something everyone in modern consumer society needs to hear. And see.

Rosamond Purcell: Goddess of Wunderkammern

Peter the Great's collection of pulled teeth, probably the most influential picture, for me, ever.

Just found this slide show/article, courtesy of Slate, about my absolutely favorite artist of all time, Rosamond Purcell, a few of whose books I mention in the Christmas list, but who is also the extraordinary contributor to Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, and the amazing Illuminations: a Bestiary, both incredible books.

Check it out - it's worth reading and looking at! And if you want to put the above two books on your list, well, I won't stop you.


Also, a marvelous review by John Crowley of Purcell's work.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Cabinet of Wonders Gift Guide

This is an unusual idea for me, but after looking at Make Magazine's Steampunk Gift Guide (which is pretty great, courtesy of Jake von Slatt of the Steampunk Workshop) I thought I'd come up with a list of my own. If I were to look for some really unusual things for a gift list, these would be but a few:

- Owl's Head: On the Nature of Lost Things or Swift As a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Species, or particularly Bookworm, all by Rosamund Purcell, the goddess of museum photography. The first of these is a meditation (with, of course, photos) on her relationship with an amazing junk collector and how he influenced her life; the second, photographs of taxidermied animals; and the third, works made by Purcell herself using books that have been destroyed in interesting ways - very reflective of the Picturesque aesthetic, making them look like ancient remains - to reveal astonishing loveliness and interesting truths.

- If you're in London or thereabouts, go visit Get Stuffed, one of my favorite stores. A taxidermical paradise.

- On this same note, Van Dyke is the Wunderkammer of all taxidermy supplies. You can get any kind of eyes, including some that don't exist in the real world (see picture above, custom ordered), as well as animal forms and every kind of chemical, etc. They even have a gift certificate option for that special taxidermist in your life.

- Also in London there is Pollock's Toy Museum, where you can check out the amazing toy exhibits (mostly toy theatres from many different periods). Then, if you're feeling like a good person, you can help help the Museum's Trust by going to Pollock's and buying some of their lovely vintage greeting card reproductions. If I could make a massive neon hand pointing to this entry in the List, I would. Pollock's shop (not to mention the Museum) is one of my favorite places in the world. You can buy some of their most extraordinary collection of reproduction toy theatres (paper cutouts, of the most wonderful variety and complexity) at Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop, another amazing place, whose relationship with the museum is...well, it seems to be complicated(wiki). I do wish that the Museum Trust sold theatres, because they need help, and greeting cards may not be enough.

- On the matter of mechanical gewgaws, the Horology Source's page on How to Make Your Own Clocks and Watches, including kits and plans.

- John Gleave, Orrery maker (hope this website still leads to a real person and is not an artifact).

- The Brass Compass, purveyors of fine brass nautical instruments: compasses, astrolabes, sextants, and so on. Make sure to look through the mind-numbing list of links at the bottom of the page, which will take you places like this theodolite, which you can buy with hardwood case and teak tripod.

- For all things stereoscopic, including stereoscopic cameras and all sorts of vintage (read: 60's 70's and on) stereo/photographic items, check out 3D by Dr. T, a warehouse of everything of this sort, for true enthusiasts - no antiques offered, only modern supplies and devices. But if you ever wanted to make your own stereoscopic pictures, this would be the place to go. They even have how-to books.

- From Jeffrey D. Picka, a professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, here is a list of genuinely strange books which is not only interesting to peruse but, if you can find copies of them, might make for really unusual gifts.

The Secrets of Building Electrostatic Lightning Bolt Generators, an eccentric book by an eccentric man who has experimented with many different types of crazy electricity machines, who after writing about his trials and errors (complete with instructions and experiments), encourages you to improve upon them.

- Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is a fascinating hypertext retelling of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Here's a description:

"What if Mary Shelley's Frankenstein were true?
What if Mary Shelley herself made the monster -- not the fictional Dr. Frankenstein?
And what if the monster was a woman, and fell in love with Mary Shelley, and travelled to America?
This is their story."

The work has gotten great reviews and sounds unusual and fascinating. I like Ms. Jackson's My Body: A Wunderkammer, a lively, down-to-earth hypertext work wherein clicking on parts of the beautifully-drawn body will get you bits and pieces of stories about her body and its life.

Outposts: A Catalog of Rare And Disturbing Alternative Information. I've heard this is an amazing book from before the Internet really took off, with "sections on drugs, sex, or other bizarre but interesting fringe culture interests." People seem to find it difficult to put down (Disclaimer: I have not read this book and cannot guarantee it would not offend some people).

- This is kind of weird: staples and eyelets to supply those who use, or would like to use, their antique paper-fastening devices.

- You can also go to eBay and type in "reliquary." There are all kinds of fascinating things that come up...

- Lastly, here is a site, entirely in Dutch (I think), showing off Jos de Vink's amazing collection of self-made Stirling hot-air engines, beautiful creations of brass and glass run entirely off small candles. I have no idea if the man is interested in selling these, but if you have enough cash, you could ask. It's worth looking at in any case. You can also see the "Kathedraal" machine, above, on Youtube.

Back on Track


NaNoWriMo is over (I made it to 40,000 words, which is a great deal of novel, so I've only got a little more to go, and I'm pretty happy).

The chaos that is my life is calming somewhat, despite Christmas and so on.

Give me a couple of days. I'll be back.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Blood Tea and Red String: a Feast of Wonders

The other night I finally watched Blood Tea and Red String, a mind-boggling animation by Christiane Cegavske, and I must say, I was really impressed.

The movie has a home-made quality, in much the same way as many of Svankmejer's movies, meaning all the parts of it are lovingly crafted and beautifully-imagined. The "camerawork" (panning and focusing) is dizzyingly versatile, moving in and out and across in the same way that a camera moves in live-action movies.

Much of the plot is mysterious and odd, and to begin with takes a bit of deduction to work out; you find yourself having to let go of preconceptions and simply let it unfold. Ms. Cegavske, who is American, does a bang-up job supplying with body language and camera work what is lost through lack of dialogue.

Some of the images are so extraordinary, so iconic: like memories or dreams. I suppose this is the purview of art, that it makes us feel that completely new images are old, something with which we are already familiar. It feels, as in dreams, that you are meeting someone you already knew, but can't quite place.

And yet, the whole thing was so original, so inspired and strange, that I find myself thinking back on the images as I go through my day. Little glimpses of it come back in the grocery store, at school, in the car, and I find I can't share what I'm remembering with anyone - they would think me too strange.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Guerilla Clockwork

I don't usually simply pass on things I hear about from other blogs, but this is simply too good to pass up. A friend of mine found it on Crooked Timber:

"For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon's unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid "illegal restorers" set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building's famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves....

Klausmann and his crew are connaisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther's parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network."

Sometimes, guerrilla culture is the best kind.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Semaphore as Information Network

Claude Chappe had tried it out with his brothers and believed - no, knew it could work. He had a vision of quick national communication - much faster than a messenger could ride, much more communicative than a signal fire.

Messengers and signal fires had been around for thousands of years, and had served armies and governments relatively well. With the re-invention of the telescope in the early 1600s (and it subsequent popularity for naval and astronomical observation), technology had changed, allowing for more freedom of the seas and the land. By the late 1700s, the atmosphere of Europe was rife with invention, and people began to look to every technology and how it could be used for new (or old) applications.

Claude Chappe, who came from a well-to-do family and who had been an abbe with a secure income, had always been interested in physics, particularly optics. His uncle Abbé Jean Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche (1722-1769), who was also in the clergy, as well as being a famous cartographer and astronomer, had traveled to Siberia in 1761 to observe the passage of Venus in front of the sun and published a well-known book about it, Voyage en Siberie. This same uncle had died of yellow fever in California while there to observe another celestial event. A eulogy was held in Paris to honor him, and his westerly observations were published posthumously.

Claude was well on his way to following in his uncle's footsteps, but the French Revolution intervened, and he and all his brothers were left unemployed. Despite the atmosphere of paranoia, where people were being beheaded for slight deviations in behavior, Claude decided to pursue an idea that had been put about, both as a reasonable scheme and as various harebrained ones: the idea of a telegraph, where signals would be passed along a line of stations, each one manned by someone trained to read the signal and reproduce it for the next station. After a few experiments, Claude came to the correct conclusion that the telegraph system should be optical - using telescopes to read the signals - because the distance between stations could then be lengthened quite a bit.

Here is an account of someone else who had experienced good results with an optical telegraph:

"One of the more practical proposals came from De Courrejolles, a captain in the French navy.[Note 12] In February 1783, De Courrejolles was engaged in battle with the English fleet, at what is described as the Turkish or Ionic Isles...He found himself surrounded by an English squadron commanded by Admiral Hood. De Courrejolles had a simple optical telegraph erected at a mountain top on the coast of one of the islands, and used it to monitor the enemy's movements. Every change in position was reported by the telegraph. Using this information De Courrejolles was able to overrun a squadron commanded by the then Captain (later Admiral) Nelson, and force the English fleet to retreat. Inspired by this success, De Courrejolles submitted a proposal to the French Minister of War to have the army adopt optical telegraphs for signaling purposes. Though De Courrejolles was unsuccessful at that time, he may well have paved the way for Chappe."

At a symposium in Sweden on the optical telegraph in 2004, a history of the Chappe network was presented in beautiful, researched detail. Unfortunately, this seems to have been taken down, but I found it via the Wayback Machine, and you can read it for yourself, if you like. Here's a quote about Claude casting about for methods to make his dream succeed:

"Abraham Chappe later wrote that Claude performed many experiments to find a good alternative, including the use of electrical signals traveling through conducting wires. He records that an optical method was only chosen. . . after having tried, unsuccessfully, electricity, various acoustical methods, the use of smoke produced by different types of combustible materials, etc. The idea to use an electrical signal had to be abandoned when no adequate insulators could be found for the wires."

So close! There were numbers of people thinking about electricity for telegraphic communication in those days, including one man in Spain who tried electrical sparks to illuminate tin-foil letters; but none of them were quite able to make it happen.

Chappe experimented and eventually adopted a design using weighted arms, which swiveled to create a large array of shapes, in effect a semaphore. Ignace is noted as saying, "Some time later [we] established with certainty that elongated objects were better visible than the sliding panels adopted before." It's interesting to note that semaphore was not used in the way we know it now, i.e., a flag-waving activity used to communicate between ships or between ships and shore, until the early 1800s.

By 1793, despite the beheading of Louis XVI and the beginning of the reign of terror, and despite the destruction of two of his signal towers by mobs who thought he was communicating with Royalist forces, Claude and his brothers had set up a telegraph line which ran between two locations near Paris, approximately 26 km apart. Having several allies within the new government, they received permission to test the line. The messages took approximately 10 minutes to transmit, an unheard-of speed at that time - and government people were there to see it happen.

This caused such excitement that within two weeks a decision had been made to establish a national telegraph system, and Claude Chappe was named Ingénieur Télégraphe (Telegraph Engineer), working for the government. Money was appropriated for the construction of a line of fifteen stations from Paris to Lille, at the frontier with the Austrian Empire; this line, when it was complete, could transmit a message in a little over half an hour, a key tool in the war between France and the Empire, as it meant the Capital could keep up on events as they happened.

If you look at this point in time, France was in a tricky position:

"France was surrounded by the allied forces of England, The Netherlands, Prussia, Austria, and Spain. The cities of Marseilles and Lyon were in revolt, and the English Fleet held Toulon. In this situation the only advantage France held was the lack of cooperation between the allied forces due to their inadequate lines of communications."[wiki]

As a result, with the success of the Lille line, optical telegraph lines were built over the entirety of France over the next twenty years or so. Napoleon loved the system, having his own portable station built which he carried with him on campaign. He also poured money into building more of the network. It wasn't cheap, because each station had to be manned by a highly-trained person, who observed the signal from other towers and knew how to pass it on. But the French system of fast communication was one of the key ingredients in France's success during the Napoleonic War, and so they hung onto it as long as they could. Claude Chappe himself remained in his position as the head of the system for over 30 years, until there was an administration change.

The Optical Telegraph system at its height covered most of the borders

By that time, however, people were finally starting to take the electric telegraph more seriously, and by 1844 America had begun work on a system of electric telegraphs which ultimately outmoded the semaphore system.

Even today you can find the towers with semaphore arms scattered all across France, sometimes with their arms drooping or missing. Some of the stations are still in working order, and you can go see them operated. It's one of those examples of a liminal moment, a place between two eras. I love things like that, things that changed the face of, say, communication while using only peoples' eyes and ears for the new technology rather than looking so far as circuits and fuses; and yet, ultimately, these systems become abandoned relatively quickly because, ultimately, someone is bound to work out the circuits and fuses...leaving behind artifacts and traces of something we couldn't possibly imagine for ourselves.


A site all about semaphores

A History of Information Highways and Byways, from NYU

Wikipedia's interesting page on the Chasqui, a network of Inca messengers who made for fast communication all over the Inca Empire.

Source for my images.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Credos to Live By (#1)

I've been too busy to really follow through on the couple of things I'm researching right now (but I have found some cool stuff!), so I wanted to share this fabulous manifesto, from Bread and Puppet Theatre. We have it hanging on the wall of our living room because it helps remind us what it's really all about. It's up high, so I forget about it and rediscover it on a regular basis. Hurrah!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

To Err Is Human, to Forgive...Human

In September, two researchers from Penn State University published about their new way to capture genetic material from extinct animals. I heard about it at the beginning of that month, when the information was released prior to the publication of a paper in Science, and have been talking about it with a friend of mine for two months now.

The thing that's unusual about this new method is that previously, with DNA samples (both nuclear and mitochondrial) from muscle and bone, there was so much cell degradation and genetic interference from bacteria and so on that it was difficult and time-consuming to find a clean enough sample to be able to get a good chunk of sequencing out of it. Sifting through the remains of mammoths and other extinct animals was so complicated and expensive that it would sometimes take six years for a single study of a single bit of mammoth. Think of it: you get this little chunk of animal, and then you have to figure out which of it is that animal and which of it is bacteria, viruses, the drool from the thing that killed and ate it, the bugs and things that broke it down after death, or whatever.

Not only that, but previously the process of saving mitochondrial DNA had been extremely difficult and fragmented, mitochondria being the driver of a number of cellular activities such as cell signaling (which includes communication between an embryo and the uterus), cellular differentiation, and control of a cell's cycles and growth.

Now, however, Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller have - nearly by accident - discovered a much faster, cleaner way: they take the DNA from hair.

For a long time it was thought that hair was a poor way to collect DNA because they had to gather from the few cells still clinging to the roots of the hair. The rest of the hair appeared to be dead material. But Mr. Schuster and Mr. Miller found that actually, the core of a hair is, essentially DNA; and that the material surrounding it on the outside of the hair (the keratin) is actually like a natural plastic, in effect laminating that DNA so that it remains quite pure. All they had to do was to wash the hairs very thoroughly, to remove any environmental contaminants, and then essentially crack open the "plastic" protection, and they had an instant cache of genome-building materials - plus a "remarkably enriched [source of] mitochondrial DNA, the special type of DNA frequently used to measure the genetic diversity of a population."

Not only is the DNA cleaner, but this means much, much shorter turnaround times: "In contrast [to previous methods], Miller said, 'Once I get the data from the genome sequencer, it takes only five minutes to assemble the entire mitochondrial genome.' The discovery... demonstrates that hair clippings can give researchers enormous power and efficiency for divining the genetic makeup of ancient species, " says the press release article from Penn State. The pair's work with hairs as old as 50,000 years has already set off a complete genome sequencing for mammoths. There is some discussion in the scientific community of the possibility of cloning a mammoth, which could be gestated by a modern elephant.

This brings up a lot of ideas for my friend and I. If it becomes this easy to sequence a genome for an extinct animal, and insert it into a modern animal's womb, then what's to stop scientists and entrepeneurs from re-creating extinct animals - the dodo, the passenger pigeon - and creating a wild-animal park a la Jurassic park, full of previously extinct animals? What's to stop us from simply fixing our previous mistakes, and putting dodos back on the island where we so gleefully slaughtered them, or re-introducing the many Amazon species which have been lost?

All those museum specimens which have some tiny portion of hair or feathers left - think of how much richness and variety of DNA is now available for us to sequence! We can be gods on our own earth.

Which brings me to the next point, which my obnoxious mind immediately jumped to, beyond the fun and joy my friend was imagining. What is to keep us from saying to ourselves, much as we do about dropping a dish, or about not buying a car with low gas mileage: oh, dear, we've made that species extinct again. Oops! Well, we'll just sequence it and start over. No one will mind...except, well, darn, the funding ran out. We'll do it later. In the meantime, look over there -

It smacks of the Godfather: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned", followed by the inevitable "Say (or compile) three gene sequences and don't forget to say your prayers," and the feeling that we have done our penances so we are all right to go out and kill again.

The thing that is so impressive to my friend is the idea that within his lifetime, he may get to see a wooly mammoth walking around. That right there makes him nearly want to weep, because it's like magic. It's like imaginary things coming to life, like all the things he thought would be the future when he was a kid, and was disappointed by (where's our jet-packs, dammit?). It's all the stuff we've lost, coming back to us - a universe of new exploration, new knowledge. It's a true Wonder, come to us in this time, when we are alive. And he's right; it is. It is really like a miracle. I have to say, the thing, for me, that would make me weep, would be a whole flock of dodos, peacefully minding their own business somewhere. That would be something to see.

But with every marvel comes a warning: the fairies are magic, but they can be dangerous too. Don't trust them too much, or you may fall asleep and wake to find everything you love has gone.

Image: Andy Goldsworthy

Saturday, November 10, 2007

All-Star Weekend

Jacopo Bassano's Last Supper

I'm sure we've all had that fantasy about meeting people you admire, and of course the reality is closer to all those YouTube videos of hysterical girls waiting outside Equus to get Daniel Radcliffe's autograph. Or, if you're like me, you're not into screaming and making a fool of yourself, so you see that famous person in a shop, peer at them sideways, wish there was some nice and interesting way to talk to them...but then you shrug and walk away, imagining all the things you might have said to the person, and knowing they were all pretty useless, because the poor person is probably sick of being approached.

So then there's the Dinner Party Fantasy, where you imagine the famous people you might invite to a dinner party. What would make for good conversation? Who would you really like to talk to? Not just because they're cute, or because you have a crush on them or think they're a good writer/actor/movie director/etc. But because you feel there must be a lot of amazing things in their heads, and you'd love to interact with them a little, share stories and so on.

I was trying to imagine this dinner party and I came up with a bunch of names. There began to be enough people there that I knew there would be no way I could really talk to any of them, so I decided it would be a weekend retreat (well, week-long would be better, but these are busy people). I started with live people, and worked my way into dead people...and of course, fictional characters weren't far behind. I did notice that the mean age of the people was surprisingly high, and I tried to think why. All I could think of was that I had chosen people who I've admired for awhile, who had accomplished a lot and who had a lot of life-experience - so if you're thinking I'm ageist, maybe you could suggest someone.

I couldn't possibly think who might sit next to who at meals. Come to think of it, not all these people would necessarily get along; but that's okay, let's assume they would.

In no particular order:

Tom Stoppard, because his brain works in the most amazing loops, he's had an interesting life, and because he's interested in all kinds of odd things;
Ursula LeGuin because I love her books, she's a wise person, and because she grew up in old California, which I'd like to ask her about;
Terry Gilliam, because he's just weird and wonderful, and I'd love to talk to him;
Brian Eno, because he's intelligent and, I suspect, witty and ascerbic, and I like his artworks (as well as his music), and the way he collaborates with other people;
Lori Anderson: what can I say? The woman is bloody brilliant, and I'd be her roommate any day. Dang! I'd give anything to talk to her;
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, starting god of the WELL (early internet community), co-founder of the Long Now Foundation... he has seen and done so many interesting things I can't begin to imagine what I'd talk about with him, only that he must make for great conversation;
Jan Švankmajer, because, well, few people really get to make a name and a living making utterly bizarre and fascinating works;
Neil Gaiman, because he writes great stuff, is prolific and intelligent, appears to be extremely kind, and likes the same stuff I do (and he's a nice dad);
Tim Burton, who makes some of the weirdest (in a good way) movies and has the best eye I've seen for oddness and style, though I'm not certain about his conversation skills;
Diana Wynne Jones, who writes insightful books with an unparalleled ability to create plots that defy the ruts that so many fantasy stories fall into, and who I would think would be the same to talk to;
Youssou N'Dour, who just fascinates me, I don't know why;
John Crowley, whose Little, Big made an inexplicable and everlasting impression on me when I read it, twenty-five years ago, and who seems able to think in both macro- and micro-vision at once;
and Faith Ringgold, who makes such amazing stories with her quilts.

Now, here's some dead people:
Joseph Cornell: I don't know much about the man, but his boxes had a lifelong effect on me - and were the beginnings of a fascination with boxes and an eventual interest in Wunderkammern;
Jane Austen, because good Lord! Have you ever seen anyone better able to dissect people with absolute sweetness and deadly precision?;
James Thurber, because he was very silly in a very smart way (except when he was serious);
Thorne Smith and Dashiel Hammett, for their dazzling wit;
Claudette Colbert, because she can talk faster than anyone I've ever seen;
Ibn Ismail Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari, because aside from being the product of a brilliant and lost civilization, he was incredibly brilliant himself - and left us some really beautiful documentation of it;
Sir Henry Bessemer, because he was a wonderful raconteur and a fabulous engineer who was not only willing to take risks, but bull-headed enough to make others at least try his inventions.
H.G. Wells, who might have been a weirdo in his own time, but wouldn't you love to be able to pick his brains?;
and Edith Wharton, to stir things up a little.

Here are some fictional people who I think would do well in the mix, or at least who I'd like to get to know better:
Tenar, from Tehanu and the other (later) Earthsea books, because she is insightful and wise and very strong in all the right ways;
Scheherazade - of course! Not only because she tells great stories but because she's smart and interesting, too;
Hobbes, as in "Calvin and" - but in his non-stuffed form, of course, because I've had a crush on him ever since he appeared in print;

Hopey and Maggie, from Locas, because they were a big part of my life for a long time, and I always wished they were real (especially back when they fixed rockets for a living);
Mina Harker, because even if she ends up being a kind of a prude, she's still pretty cool.
Harlequin and Columbine, a fascinating and quixotic couple guaranteed to spice up any gathering.

I suspect there are actually many, many more good house parties out there, but I'm still writing NaNoWriMo and couldn't possibly spend more time thinking about it. Any further suggestions?

(PS. for an interesting Google-Earth style look at the last supper, check this out)