Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer Cleaning

Cleaning out the basement is meant to be a boring, thankless task. Fortunately for me, I seem to have been doing it for years, so now that I absolutely have to get rid of some stuff, I'm finding only the less junky stuff is really left to deal with. And so I find myself going through years of lovely stuff, things I had forgotten I own. Nice things. Things from my travels and other odd life-experiences...

George Carlin had a thing he used to do about "My stuff and your shit," but it seems to me this stuff is pretty interesting shit..

So I took some pictures.

But then, my thinking it's interesting is exactly the reason why it's in my basement.

This is one of those nesting Russian dolls, called a Matryoshka doll, but instead of those pretty girlie figures we get all the main Russian leaders, from Boris Yeltsin right back to a teeny-tiny little Ivan the Terrible.

They seem to be trying to educate us about some of the leaders, here...

Can't remember where I got these. Somewhere in Asia, during my rambles; they are opium tools, probably made for tourists, but then again, I'd bet they aren't too far off from the originals.

Glass soda bottles from a street vendor in Japan. You pay your money and the vendor bashes in the top, which is a little glass ball held in place purely by the pressure of the carbonation (see the picture below). Then you stand there and drink it, give the bottle back to the vendor, and go on your way. Needless to say, I wasn't a very good citizen, or I wouldn't have these.

The glass shell of a streetlight. Notice the interesting combination of Fresnel lens on the inner surface and wavy texture on the outside. The Fresnel lens focuses the light, and the wavy lines make it feel less like a spotlight. It's imprinted with the GE logo (see below).

A solid glass ball, about the size of a small grapefruit.

One of the few items left from my days blowing glass, probably my favorite.

Edward VIII coronation cup, horribly mended.

Everyone needs some good English stripey ceramicware!

A few of the many, many cups my father made for my wedding celebration...

...And my baby cup, also made by him.

Outside and...

...inside of a millivoltmeter, which seems to record its measurements on a soot-coated wheel marked with the hours.

A fan from a flea market in Japan. Anyone know what it says?

A very old, very beautiful, very well-loved double bridge pack of cards from the house of family in England.

And lastly, a child's toy from the same house (as are all the dolls in the bin at the top of the page).

This is only one afternoon's worth of finds. There is much more, like the things I unearthed last Friday: a set of opium weights, an opium pipe, a carving of a nasty little man from, I think, Irian Jaya (though I bought it in Kuching, on Borneo) who is clutching his penis and a knife, and who seems to have real teeth. A set of tiny old ninepins with beautiful wormholes in them. Some souvenir china from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. And on and on. I couldn't possibly put it all in my house, yet I have a hard time relinquishing it...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Social Sewing and Networked Objects

My friend Gwyan sent me a link (via O'Reilly Radar) to a project developed for Microsoft Research's Design Expo, wherein a group of students came up with a wonderful networked object which is designed to be a comfortable improvement for a grandparent. The project is called Social Sewing, and was designed for Despina, grandmother to one of the people in the design group.

Despina was a dressmaker before she retired, working in a shop with several other people, all sewing and gossiping together as they worked. She did this for many years, until it became too hard to get to the shop. Apparently she is still working, but now does it from home – and finds it incredibly lonely work. So the group designed three little sewing-machine-like-objects, with different colored fabrics on each one, which are networked with her friends' sewing machines. When her friends are sewing, the needles on the faux machines go up and down and the wheels go around - with apparently the right sound - and a light goes on to illuminate the fabric, just like in a real machine. When Despina sits in her sewing chair, communication is activated by her weight, and she can talk to whichever friends are sewing at that time, thus making her sewing the interesting gossip-and-sew experience it used to be in the shop. Apparently the friends are all such good seamstresses that they can tell, just by listening to the sound of the others' sewing, what the others are making. By making the devices familiar in shape and sound, the group have enhanced Despina's life dramatically without making her learn anything outside her comfort zone.

For years people have been talking about humanity getting wired into the world, wearing earrings that talk to the bus (and pay the fare) and so on. But I think that is largely chatter. The real impact is going to be in ways like this, where individual people find ways to make their lives better in ways that corporate entities could never imagine. How well would a device like this sell - or perhaps I should ask how many people out there are retired seamstresses? Not many. And yet people like this group, and many of the people who come to events like Maker Faire, are finding incredibly individual and creative ways to use technology - including, as in this case, networking everyday objects so as to make them familiar and fun, without all the learning involved in a designed corporate interface. As far as I'm concerned, this is where combining humanity and technology will have real impact, when we have the tools to design our own technological objects, when the tools are in our own hands to make what we please, in much the same way we knit sweaters or design our own websites. We are all different from any other person; and so, too, should our technology be different. And part of our everyday world, not as "technology", like cell phones or the Internet, but incorporated into our clothes, our knitting needles, the things we like to do. It's where all the personalized interfaces are trying to go, but in a much better, much more interesting way.

(PS. I'll be posting about Maker Faire in the next few days, I hope).

Old Man Bites Tenderly

I came across this entirely by accident, but it's hilarious (if a bit brutal), especially toward the end.

When I lived in Japan, the TV was full of shows like these: people having to put their faces into cages full of live snakes or having to dance on giant slimy inflatable balls, or being dropped in cars from 100-foot-high cranes. Most of the time they didn't seem funny to me, being largely about humiliation and doing things that looked insanely dangerous. This one, however, is made funnier by the inanity of the punishments and by the stricture of having to be quiet in a library. And what the heck is that American guy doing there? No idea, but it's very typical of the genre.

There was also a series of Arnold Schwarzenneger commercials when I was there for what we called a "genki drink" (energy drink), where Arnold behaved like a lunatic, which struck all of us gaijin (foreigners) as extremely funny, in that "Oh, my God" kind of way. Here's one, below: "Bui" is how the letter "V" is pronounced in Japanese, and "Daijobu" means "no problem"; so the "Daijobui" is a kind of play on words for the name of the product.

Hard to imagine, in those days, that he would become the governor of California.

My closest brush with this kind of silly show was when a TV crew came to the gaijin house (a kind of residence hotel) where I lived for awhile and filmed us all making dishes of our own concoction out of Japanese ingredients. The crew were very polite, but the TV show, when it came on the air, ended up just as sensationalized and inane as all the others. Still, it was extremely interesting to see oneself through the lens of another culture's media.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Number 9, Number 9

So I was contacted recently by the people at Focus Films, who are whipping up a buzz about the forthcoming film called 9, a post-apocalyptic animation piece about some little stitched-together folk who must survive in a harsh environment full of really strange and feral machines who hunt them. It sounded familiar, so I did some research and found the original short film by Shane Acker, which won a number of awards (and was nominated for an Oscar) - for good reason. Below is the full film, courtesy of Youtube. It runs about 10 minutes long, and is really excellent.

Apparently Mr. Acker is directing this new, longer, and more complete film, which is produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. The website given to me by the Focus people, full of backstory and cool imagery, was very interesting, much more encouraging and intriguing than the trailer I originally unearthed, which looked and sounded, as my ten-year-old daughter said, "Like it was made by gamers."

I often wonder how authors feel when their efforts are, by editorial command, given garish book-covers and inaccurate blurbs, as has happened to many fine writers like Philip K. Dick, supposedly to appeal to the genre reader. In previews, when choices are made about music and editing that feel like they are aimed at a specific kind of audience (not who the art and direction of the film seem to be targeting), it does make you wonder how the filmmaker feels about it, and if they get some say in the publicity.

In fact, it does look like it has the makings of a complex and even clever film, with a slightly grimy aesthetic that includes cobwebs, parchment, brass navigational instruments, books, dead machines and things in jars, to name a few, and an interesting glowing quality of light which perhaps is part of this particular vision of a doomed world. The vision is pretty interesting, a bit like Mad Max meets da Vinci meets the Muppets, with a steampunk twist.

I admit, though, I'm still trying to figure it out. The marketing is strangely mixed, and seems to be trying to appeal to the steampunk contingent while keeping an eye on metal-loving gamers. Perhaps the director has some kind of hybrid vision? For some reason, the fact that only one out of nine main characters is female makes me think this might be true. It's really an enigma, one I'm not entirely certain will work. The victoriana of steampunk and the geeky back-to-basics wonder of clockpunk communities tend to be very female-friendly, with a strongly feminine streak mixed into the rivets and brass. So, unless the art direction is only giving a sort of nod in that direction, I am curious to see how they will pull it off.

On the other hand, perhaps the marketing assumption is that gamers watch previews, and other types look at websites...? Or perhaps, that women look at the web, and men look at previews?

Still, (and I am getting on my soapbox here) it strikes me as strange: I've seen three trailers now and they all use the same song, a generic semi-metal instrumental by Coheed and Cambria. What's with this sole choice of music to represent their movie? My beef with it is not so much a matter of my personal taste so as the genericness of the choice. If they are wanting to make the film look intriguing, why are they going so mainstream (and such a specific kind of mainstream, at that)? It's true that Mr. Bekmambetov has made movies of comics, and the lead singer of Coheed and Cambria wrote the Amory Wars series, above, but still. Does that style (see picture) really reflect the kind of movie they're making here? I mean, I actually had goosebumps watching the most recent preview - until the music started. If it's supposed to be a creative film, why not use more creative music, like Abney Park, or the awesomely versatile talents of In The Nursery, who did, among other (and totally disparate) things, the modern soundtracks for such silent classics as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the wonderful Hindle Wakes? I mean, we might get tired of Danny Elfman sometimes, but even he could do better than this; his music would at least be tailored to the film (he did do a passable semi-metal thing himself for Mr. Bekmambetov's own movie Wanted). Or try looking at some of the other possibilities, like these and these. {/soapbox}

In any case, the people at Focus have vowed to send me cool stuff, and I will duly filter it and pass on anything that seems truly unusual. It's not my style to hype about media, but I do have to say some of the initial images and stories in the website above seem potentially quite in line with the Cabinet, so I am ever-hopeful. Keep your fingers crossed.

(Update: I seem to have gotten on some kind of list. I've now gotten another email from another cinema company asking if I would participate in the discussion of some other upcoming films. Sorry, guys, that's just not my cup of tea. Live and learn!)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Little Vampire (and Other Little Folk)

Just a brief post to say I love Joann Sfar. And possibly Emmanuel Guibert.

I first became aware of his work through, bizarrely, a little annual comic (a compilation of stuff put together for kids to read, in a cheap format similar to a TV guide) which my kids bought at a vide grenier (a village-wide garage sale) in France. Mostly it was full of fluffy kids' comics, but there was this one story which caught our attention, in which evil mermaids who make horrible honking and tooting noises (expressed in French as "Onk! Onk!" and "Tut! Tut!") capture a girl and boy. The kids fight the mermaids with a found sword, and then... well, the next frame is of them sitting around a table with a couple of huge fish skeletons on plates, looking very full. The annoying mermaids (sans tails) are left on an island, still alive and honking, to enrage a skinny guy and a superhero-type guy, while the two kids and their pirate friend fly off in a spaceship.

Now, first of all, the concept of cutting off (and eating) mermaid tails is wildly arresting. I was initially rather shocked, and then thought, "Wow, the French sure are open-minded!" But the whole thing - drawings and all - was weird: who was the guy in the superhero suit, and the skinny guy with the tall head and beak-like lips? And why are these kids flying around in a spaceship with a pirate guy? My French simply wasn't good enough to get my head round it.

But I also couldn't forget it.

Then one day I was in my local comic book store and there it was: a little comic called Sardine in Outer Space, by Emmanuel Guibert and Joanne Sfar. I couldn't believe my eyes: a whole book of that gross humor, drawn in hilarious style? I had to get it, and then I got the skinny: Sardine, a girl (or little witch?) whose black cat rides around on her hat, and her friend Little Louie, travel around space with Sardine's uncle, Captain Yellowshoulder (known as such, apparently, because of his ubiquitous shoulder-riding parrot), committing deeds of derring-do (and sometimes deeds of pure annoyingness) against the stupid President of the Universe, Supermuscleman (known by the same name in French) and his evil genius advisor/superior Doc Krok. The stories are unique, individually and as a collection. My daughters love them, particularly the younger, who likes funny stories with occasional gross jokes about badly-behaved people - and particularly if they are drawn as wildly as these.

Sfar has gained some fame in the U.S. with The Rabbi's Cat, which won an Eisner Award and has gotten excellent reviews. He also did the Donjon (Dungeon) series with Louis Trondheim, another of my favorite (very irreverent) comic people. Sfar's Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East sounds pretty fun, and The Professor's Daughter seems intriguing. I have to admit, though: I haven't personally read any of his adult stuff yet.

I did just get Little Vampire, which includes three stories about a, well, little vampire, the son of the man from the Flying Dutchman and his suicide bride. He lives in a haunted house with his horrific-looking but kindly father and his beautiful, but blue, mother, with a small red demon-like dog and a host of yucky monsters. When he makes friends with a human boy, these create some minor obstacles, being initially daunting for the boy; but the boy soon gets used to it. The stories are, in true Sfar style, truly unusual, though they have more structure and a little more empathy than the unapologetically bad-mannered Sardine books.

I really, really like them. Sfar has an unerring eye for what it's like to be a kid, and a certainty about a child's understanding of its place in the world: he understands the simple irritants of kids trying to deal with stupid adults, and finding ways to mess with their boring desire to control things; at the same time he knows that adults are not always bad, and that being a kid can be difficult and confusing. If his adult stuff is this spot on, I'm in.