“humour was a high artform in Paris in the 20’s” Alexander Rower

Calders Circus Dog

Calder's Circus Dog

“One of the misconceptions about the circus was that it was fun and great, but in reality, humor was a high art form in the late ’20s in Paris,” said Alexander S. C. Rower, a grandson of Calder and director of the Calder Foundation, which manages the artist’s estate. “So much so that when Calder performed his circus, all the circus critics came and reviewed it, giving it great dignity instead of minimizing it as something for children, which it wasn’t.”


After 1930, however, Mr. Rower said, “performing the circus was not really his thing.” Like a wily barker, Calder deployed his circus to lure his audience to an attraction that he hoped would seal his reputation: his wire portraits. Modeled on famous personalities like Calvin Coolidge, Kiki de Montparnasse and Josephine Baker, whose sensuous full-length likeness was composed of spirals and whorls, these suspended sculptures softly shimmied as they caught the air. Later came his moving abstractions, the stabiles and mobiles, a collision of art and engineering.”

New York Times

Calder stabile on George Street, Sydney

Donation Dashboard


         Craigslist is a meteor whose impact is sending the lumbering media giants into extinction by taking away their lifeblood, classified advertising. Craig Newmark had a newsletter about things going on in San Francisco that he distributed by e-mail. I imagine it was the sort of thing that once would have been photocopied and tacked-up on bulletin boards in coffee shops, the public library and the doctor’s waiting room, among notices for rooms-to-rent, bicycles-to-buy and plumbers spruiking their services. Then he took the whole bulletin board and put it online. But he put every town’s bulletin boards online and undermined the financial structures of newspapers from the small community paper all the way up to the New York Times.

            No matter how expansive and comprehensive Craigslist becomes it aims to retain the integrity of a community newsletter, doing business within what the FAQ on the website calls “a culture of trust.” There’s been no brand-creation, cross-marketing, and a significant corporate investor is E-Bay, which has also laboured to create a community culture of trust, trying to maintain its connection to being an online host for neighbourhood flea-markets and yard-sales, and relying on testimonials of trust to evaluate buyers and sellers.

            There’s no editorial content on Craiglist. Community news and features has been radically re-imagined by Steven Johnson and John Geraci with Outside.in, which geotags posts and groups them into locations. The ebb and flow of news and opinion can be seen on buzz maps which represent media organisations in grey and bloggers in orange. The Washington Post has teamed up with Outside.in to revamp its City Desk with Outside.in buzz maps.

            This local and simultaneously global phenomenon is the perspective of our age says Steven Johnson who calls it “the Long Zoom”. Joseph Campbell said that the image of the earth shown to us by the Apollo astronauts widened the horizon for mythology, that since that time we’d have to be aware that local and global were inextricably linked states of being. The satellite tracking and imaging technology that was created for the moon missions has now sunk into lowly domestic appliances and communications devices. Outside.in’s navigation system is linked to Google earth’s maps.

            I followed a couple of links from John Geraci’s blog through to assessments of the media. The gist of these reports was that newspapers have a different financial model online because their digital service is accessed in pieces. A reader may perform a search, follow a link, be responding to an e-mail alert and may never even visit the newspaper’s site to read the story. Offline the prestige of the newspaper is in its whole. Investigative journalism may occasionally be dull but it’s the kind of endeavour that brings prestige to a newspaper and is worth the investment in reporting costs. Online an investigative report may bring in few readers and be difficult to match with keyword advertising that readers will click through to. The ideal online story might be a sensational new study of depression, say, that can be surrounded by pharmaceutical advertising that worried readers would surely be likely to click on.

            One of the reports asked Craigslist founder Craig Newmark what he thought was important in newspapers and he replied “investigative journalism”. Well there’s no hope the blogger mused, now that Craigslist is inadvertently destroying the organizations that could deliver investigative journalism. But another blogger suggested that what was needed was not to look at ways of propping up the same kind of media we already have, but taking a fresh approach and experimenting, taking the values of journalism, and seeing how they might effectively work with these new tools, to assess social value not just financial returns. The issues of trust, accountability and responsibility underpin investigative journalism and the project that the Berkeley Center for New Media has undertaken since Craig Newmark made an endowment looks at how the accumulated wisdom of a community can make considered choices about charitable giving. The Berkeley Center for New Media has created a Donation Dashboard that ‘learns’ from the opinions of its users to make suggestions about matching potential donors with charitable organizations.

            Here’s how it works: you are presented with brief descriptions of non-profit institutions and asked to rate each in terms of how interested you are in donating to it. The system analyses ratings in light of others’ ratings and does its best to allocate your available funds in proportion to your interests. Your customized “donation portfolio” is presented in an easy-to-understand pie chart that you can save at the site for future reference. Donation Dashboard, which is being developed by the Berkeley Center for New Media, extends machine learning techniques used by commercial websites to recommend movies, music, and books. Donation Dashboard goes beyond existing charity ranking sites by statistically combining your ratings with the ratings entered by your fellow good Samaritans to compute a portfolio customized to your interests.

            A few years ago the New Yorker’s finance columnist James Surowiecki wrote a book called The Wisdom of Crowds that told of how individuals acting alone, when their actions are aggregated, very often make more considered and correct choices than those following an expert handing opinions and advice down. Donation Dashboard has a conceptual clarity that asks users to base their opinions on two measures, the operational effectiveness of the organization represented as a percentage. The higher the percentage the more your donation goes directly to the mission, the lower the percentage the more your donation is applied to the administrative and operating costs of the organization. And a sliding scale that asks you to rank your interest in the philosophy of the organization from “not very” to “very”. 

            The Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, Ken Goldberg, is also a scientist and an artist and in telerobotic art projects created through the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department at Berkeley has been working with intelligent databases and collaborative filtering programs since before we were used to encountering them on the likes of Amazon.com suggesting other purchases, or ranking the popularity of articles online. Amazon’s suggestions fall within narrow and doggedly obvious comparisons. When I purchase a Nick Cave album I’m given a range of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen albums to buy. But the ranking system has no way of measuring that I’m more likely to buy Miles Davis’s last album, Doo Bop, because my curiosity had been stirred by Nick talking about listening to a lot of late Miles Davis albums.

            In the material world we’re guided by the opinions and suggestions of others, and are taken into realms that are seemingly unpredictable. Ken Goldberg’s first collaborative filtering program Jester, told jokes that we rated, and then it tried to tell us more jokes we’d find funny. The parameters were complex and finely calibrated and I was often surprised that the program could follow my eccentric and illogical sense of humour, and just as often be surprised that I’d find something funny that I wouldn’t have imagined I’d find funny. Something similar has happened with my first few experiences with Donation Dashboard. I’m generally drawn to operations with lean operating expenses, but there are exceptions. I’m very interested in practical medical programs that provide ongoing services in remote, dangerous locations and I’d want them to have the necessary equipment and security and incur travel costs rotating staff. Donation Dashboard is programmed to pick up on these nuances, and in some cases I overturned previous prejudices, rethinking an organization I’d had a narrow perception of previously.

            The Berkeley Center for New Media has a broad definition of media, including theories and philosophies as media. Donation Dashboard might just stand as a metaphor that helps us think about what we deem valuable and are willing to pay for. Media organizations are increasingly in thrall to advertisers, telling us this is the bitter pill we have to swallow in order to pay for the investigative and community reporting that might not generate revenue. So instead of cultural reports we get lifestyle stories with marketing tie-ins.

            New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who has invested in Outside.in and de.licio.us (before it was sold to Yahoo!) has been writing recently on large organizations not understanding the value of the smaller companies and services they buy, gutting or diminishing them, without capitalising on what makes them valuable to the people who use them. I’ve been annoyed, lately, that the New York Times has removed the bookmarking site, de.licio.us from the “share” function in favour of Yahoo! Buzz, a popularity ranking service for articles. The New York Times has been the newspaper I’ve valued most, but it’s astonished me to realize that I value de.licio.us more, that I read the Guardian first now and often buy the Guardian Weekly from newsstands in Sydney, several blogs (particularly Bldgblog )next, and catch up with the New York Times often through Dayna Bateman’s blog, Detritus. She condenses articles in a way that makes them poetry.

              The Donation Dashboard pie-chart, cutting an individual’s donation into several parts, acknowledges that the world we live in is fragmented but that we can perceive it as a whole, symbolically. A community newspaper might not be a single entity any more, or part of a chain, but made up of Outside.in articles and Craigslist ads without the two organisations ever having to have anything directly to do with one another. What’s important is to be able to measure and aggregate trust, to learn from and benefit from the thoughts and insights of others.

Foamy music by Warren Ellis

Exquisite music by Warren Ellis for a Sony ad which filled the streets of Miami with foam.

Created by the ad agency Fallon London, which also made the three previous iconic Sony advertisements – all for the Bravia flat-screen television – the ninety-second “Foam City” commercial required 16 hours of filming.

The  team flooded the centre of the Florida, south east United States, city with over 460 million litres of foam, using the world’s largest foam-producing machine, which could fill an Olympic swimming pool in 24 seconds.

The commercial is being shown for the first time on European televisions today. However, it will not appear in the UK until May 1.

Directed by Simon Ratigan, it features music by Warren Ellis, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It is advertising the new Handycam and Cybershot handheld digital video cameras.

Over 200 Miami residents were asked to frolic in the foam while capturing events on the cameras.

Tom Chivers. Telegraph. April 16, 2008

I used to romanticize Sony. I did well investing in the stock market at the end of the dot.com boom but Sony was a lead weight, I made the mistake of emotionally investing in my investments. The Walkman was a truly magical object to me: As it was to William Gibson, it was part of his inspiration for cyberspace and what became the digital age in Neuromancer.

”I had gone into a small neighborhood electronics store, never even having heard of the Walkman,” he said in an interview from Vancouver. ”They had one on display and the guy told me, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’

”I haven’t had that immediate a reaction to a piece of technology before or since. I didn’t analyze it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognized the revolutionary intimacy of the interface. For the first time I was able to move my nervous system through a landscape with my choice of soundtrack.

William Gibson, interviewed. New York Times. July 29, 1999.

Then I got caught up in the Sony creation myth, Ibuka and Morita cooking up audio tape with tarry substances on kraft paper in the rubble of bombed out buildings in post-WW2 Tokyo.

Sony disappointed me with the “walkman of words”, a hideous geiger-counter like object with ugly radioactive-green words on a tiny screen, in 1991. I held fast to the dream of a perfectly simple multi-screened device through watching e-ink’s developments in clear text on opaque flexible screens that could be read even in daylight. But then the Libri-e, only released in Japan around the turn of the millennium and later the electronic book reader, for the Western world, just seemed futile. One day I woke up and the the fairy tale was over: the nerd equivalent of no longer believing in Santa Claus. The discontinuation of the robot dog, AIBO was the final nail in the coffin. An electronic book was no longer a holy grail. I figured that if I wait a few months I’ll have an Apple phone/ Blackberryish communicator / Music player / World radio with a reasonable screen and do basic reading-for-information, or when I’m travelling, on that device and print out anything I want to savour and flip through. So I’m researching flexible ceramic spines and pages that fold in and hold, without glue, to build a bibliostructure to hold the print-outs.

When I read that Warren Ellis had been hired to do the music for an ad, then heard the music, my heart warmed a little again towards Sony. He’s an exquisitely thoughtful and intelligent composer. I don’t know much about how compositions evoke a feeling, time or place rather than illustrate it, I just respond. As a child my favourite composer was Duke Ellington, and Warren’s music seems to me to have that kind of scope, something unbounded in its curiosity and genuinely soulful. I first saw Warren perform when he played with the Bad Seeds in Los Angeles and there’s something tender, though wild, about his contributions to the band that make me think of a description I once read about early country music, that the violin was the symbol for tugging the strings of the heart.

The first piece of his own music I owned (before circling back to the Dirty Three’s albums) was a solo violin piece he wrote for my dancer friend Dana Gingras’s company, the Holy Body Tattoo. Dana spent her childhood in Buenos Aires and has a great love of Paris, where Tango music found a home when it was exiled from Argentina. The name of the dance company refers to the indelible marks that life experiences leave on the soul. (The show Circa also includes music by the Tiger Lillies.) Warren has commented on his music for Circa.

I had been approached sometime before to contribute some solo music to the project,and this recording is the result. The theme of the dance was the tango and I was asked to write music in an appropriate style. Tango is a style of music I have never attempted to play or write, and for that reason decided any attempt to try and write something in that vein would be at once dishonest and most probably insulting to a fine form of music.

So I decided to deconstruct, if you like, the elements I heard in Tango music,its percussive nature, sliding melodies, glissandos, the emotional intensity, and try to create it in a figurative way, using only the violin. I worked with the two dancers in a small studio in Paris, listening to the way their shoes slid, and improvising to the movement that they were creating for the piece.

Warren Ellis.

Warren’s foamy music for Sony has the crystalline loveliness of a snowflake, with just a sharp metallic edge of something manufactured, not organic. And the wrenching melancholy of snowflakes, the fleeting beauty that dissolves in your hand the moment you touch it.

Geoff Manaugh has a post on Bldgblog about the meteorological foam we call clouds being used as an advertising medium. A recalibrated version of skywriting.

Over on LiveScience we learn that a new company has started using “a mixture of soap-based foams and lighter-than-air gases such as helium” to create “floating ads and messages” in the sky.
Unfortunately dubbed Flogos, these floating logos can be made – or printed, really – every 15 seconds by “re-purposed snow machines,” thus “flooding the air with foamy peace signs or whatever shape a client desires. Renting the machine for a day starts out at a cost of about $2,500.”
I should start blogging with it.
The sky texts aren’t particularly large, however. They’re only “about two feet long and nearly a foot wide” – but they “generally last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on conditions in the atmosphere.”
“They will fly for miles,” their inventor adds – because they are “durable,” capable of flying as high as 20,000 feet without breaking up. Gaseous typography.
It won’t just be meteorologists watching the skies, in other words, but graphic designers. Adjusting leading, kerning the clouds, ragging atmospheres.

Geoff Manaugh. Bldgblog



A Requiem for Aibo


This Aibo listens to Nipper. Photograph by pt at Flickr.

The mystical theme of the space age is this: The world, as we know it, is coming to an end. The world as the centre of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which love is reserved for members of the in-group: That is the world that is passing away. Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic world view, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious, that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth, that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the Kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbours, in our enemies, in all of us.

Joseph Campbell. New York Times Magazine. Circa 1977.

An entire cyle of myth played itself out, from beginning to end starting with the Apollo 8 crew’s photograph of earthrise, the view back to earth from the moon’s orbit that showed us that we are one group of humans living within one habitat, undivided, and ended with a series of exquisitely beautiful Bergdorf Goodman advertisements photographed by Sheila Metzner and published in the New York Times Magazine towards the end of 1999, which showed a woman on a barren planet — perhaps Mars — living in something like Richard Neutra’s Kaufman House with only Sony’s robot dog AIBO, “man’s next friend” as a companion. The computer age ended with symbols of glamorous desolation that aligned with the wasteland identified by T.S. Eliot in the 1920’s, and that Arthur Schlesinger recognised as still existing in the middle of the century. “Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1948. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”

Joseph Campbell died in 1987. In 1988 his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Studio, The Power of Myth, was shown on public television in America and was an enormous hit, they reignited a public thirst for mythology but in the series Joseph Campbell noted that an era was ending and he had no clear idea where the new context for mythological stories would be found. The idealism of the civil rights era and the ambition that sent humans to the moon had passed and the falling of the Berlin Wall was bringing the curtain down on the cold war. The dot.com boom that would become a frenzy in the decade after Campbell died would bring about some powerful social and cultural advancements: the internet would remain free and owned by no-one, but what would largely be remembered was a hunger for ridiculous amounts of money tied to goofily improbable schemes.

Movies were carrying forward some mythological messages, Campbell noted in The Power of Myth. George Lucas had drawn heavily from Campbell’s writings that connected up myths across cultures and through time for his Star Wars movies. Campbell’s response to the movies was that: “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom — the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.” Campbell died before the introduction of the internet, but he’d owned a computer. He likened it to an Old Testament God that was “all rules and no mercy.”

The myths for a new century, a new time, look beyond the computer to what remains human. In his 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson predicted that as the millennium turned the world would end and no-one would notice. What ended was any sense of the divine being something outside ourselves. We’d travelled outside of ourselves to look back with God’s eye at our world when we put humans into orbit. We’d cloned animals (and perhaps humans) and in our dominion over nature had all but destroyed our world. The invention of the atom bomb gave us the power to wipe out the world. The novel ends with time symbolically beginning again: the last few chapters are truly poetic and inexpressible in logical terms. But these things happen: the entirely synthetic creature, the idoru, Rei Toi becomes organically human, an Eve for a new age made entirely from shards of our knowledge. Humans find themselves again within authentic stories: symbolised by the struggle between Cody Harwood, the media baron who manufactures abstracted existences around celebrities and Rydell, whose exquisite sensitivity to patterns in data recognises the aimlessness and inhumanity of the data stream. And the innocent, damaged boy Silencio, with the idiot savant’s ability to recognise patterns watches time being remade. And the bridge burns. This made me think of the Buddhist parable that the raft is not the shore, when we arrive at the other side we don’t drag the boat along behind us, it was merely a vehicle to deliver us to a new shore. We’ve arrived somewhere beyond the computer: it’s useful, but not Godlike, it serves us not the other way round. The perspective for this new mythology was introduced in Nick Cave’s 2001 song As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, the co-ordinates given are universal and global. Two beings sit beside one another and describe what they see through the window and in their own hearts: it’s a dialogue between Nick and his wife, Nick and the listener, Nick and himself, Nick and God. It’s a new age: the song vaguely references the final book of the New Testament, Revelations, where Jesus is the bridegroom of humankind, wiping away our tears now that the former things have passed away. It’s a call to action and has the rhythm of an engaged heartbeat. It seems to be a conversation recalled while Nick is walking out into the world. A couple of years later William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition would outline the mythological system for this new age, finding connections, human connections, that are meaningful: the only technology in the book was what was already on the market, an Apple cube, a regular powerbook, a mobile phone.   

His novels have become the defining myths of the digital tele-communications section of the computer age. He’s truly a Joseph Campbell figure for this new age. The Sony Walkman had helped define William Gibson’s concept of virtual reality. He wrote of walking through the streets of Vancouver with the “bleak majesty” of a Joy Division album playing within his thoughts, adding to his experience of the city. It was a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds. Gibson was also inspired by adolescents being absorbed into the abstract visual worlds of early arcade video games, the musicians of Nick Cave’s generation constructing elaborate mental worlds within the broken parts of cities worldwide, Ridley Scott’s movie Bladerunner, and the first personal computer, all of which happened circa the significant science fiction date of 1984.

The Bladerunner legacy is the one that’s most obvious to identify. Humans destroyed the landscape and all living creatures and had to relocate to Mars. On earth they’d created robotic animals to replace the real wildlife that had become extinct. On Mars they created humanoid robots to be companions, but even the robots were lonely. The robots (replicants) turned to classical Jules Verne and H.G. Wells science fiction to make their existence bearable, stories that represented Mars as a verdant paradise. The rogue replicants escape to earth, determined to have an authentic, meaningful existence, whatever the hardships and however broken the landscape, since they’d be a part of a genuine community.

AIBO, a Japanese word meaning companion, and a clumsy acronym for an artificial intelligence robot seemed to be the beginning of a breed of smart creatures that might, one day, be capable of becoming genuinely independently intelligent, lifelike. It’s possible that, like the Walkman, the AIBO represented the culmination of a technological system, as it was dying out, not the start of something new. Sony unwittingly symbolised the fulfillment of the Bladerunner prophecy. A version of AIBO, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were robot dogs traversing Mars. One of them landed, rolled into place on the surface of the planet and began playing (Sony recording artist) Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born To Run”. A melancholy book about Sony, by John Nathan, ended with a chapter entitled “Idei the Heretic” in which the then Chief Executive suspected Sony as we knew it then would have to die. He was right. He was removed from the job. AIBO was discontinued, and the Qualia range, something as bizarrely perfectly unreal, like a Victorian naturalist’s specimens remains only as high-priced range in America. Qualia suggested that electronics would create heady new sensations, comparable with the joy of savouring a $400 glass of wine, or a perfect leaf plucked from a rainforest. Qualia stores were exclusive tombs, with their own scent and concierges clad in Yohji Yamamoto costumes demonstrating electronics to potential customers. The Qualia operation reminded me of the Tyrell Corporation’s perfect Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters with its all but real owl, and the nearly human Rachel.

The part of us that hears

needs to be heard

The part of us that sees

Yearns to be observed

The part of us that touches

Wants to be engaged

The part of us that feels

Needs to be nurtured

It’s the part of us that gives shape and meaning to sensory experiences – to Qualia.

Sony brochure.

The last decade of the twentieth century was heady. It was as if perfectly sane businesses began reading William Gibson’s novels and considering them urban planning documents and manufacturing schematics for technological devices. Gibson’s symbolic inference that all life would pass through the computer screen and find a truer existence there was taken as a bald fact. There were business plans that chased this notion that were patently absurd and unworkable and fell apart almost immediately. There were those that were sinister, like Enron’s befuddling commodities trading leaving a wake of environmental and human suffering in India, a couple of dimly lit years in California, and denuded pension plans of its employees. But there were those that were market dreams as fine and valuable as myths, that allowed people to do things for themselves: to market their own products directly to one another (e-Bay) with an escrow payment system that kept their financial details secure (PayPal), a search engine that was (then) unmuddied by advertising (Google). Google maps allowed us to view our world any way we wanted. And alongside these commercial ventures, the internet remained free and a community: with its backbone universally available (the World Wide Web), a system for sharing and collaborating through several sets of copyright tiers (Creative Commons), an operating system that re-invents itself through collective labours (Linux), and now the hyperlocal phenomenon of Placeblogging through Outside.in .


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