Archive for July, 2010
Images of Russia, during World War II and today:
At Geekosystem, Robert Quigley writes:
Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov is a master of a technique called, alternatively, perspective-matching photography or the fancier computational rephotography, which consists of precisely matching the points-of-view of vintage and modern photographs and exploring what happens where they merge. Since last year, Larenkov has been assembling a series of such photos on World War II…
Some Photoshop whizzes have criticized Larenkov’s work on the grounds that the mergers are too jarring in their contrasts and could be executed with greater smoothness on his part, but, in the absence of an explanation of his work, I think that’s kind of the point: It clearly takes a great deal of patience and technical aptitude to create these photos, and the harshness of imposing war and its devastation on pristine modern European cities works better when it’s not too slick.
Browsing through Larenko’s gallery, the work is pretty uneven, but in a way that’s actually revealing. Some of them just put photos of groups of people from WWII against contemporary backgrounds, or vice versa. It looks sort of like one of those kitschy sepia-tinted photos of your family dressed in old-timey clothes you might get at a theme park. Overwhelmingly, the best images, like those above, blend outdated or obliterated buildings and vehicles into the existing cityscape. It’s the materiel, not the men, who matter.
Partly, this is because vintage photos of destroyed cities are just so compelling. This is an underappreciated contribution of Matthew Brady and the other photographers of the American Civil War. They kicked off a new kind of photorealist aesthetic focusing on machines and the worlds destroyed by them. All those strange geometries and fragmented buildings then funnel into the first waves of photographic abstraction. Here are some pictures of Charleston and Fort Sumter (after the allies retook the fort, bombarding it with heavy guns):
Like me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is fascinated by the way that the Civil War is a war driven by and brought to bear on “stuff” (human beings in the form of slaves and soldiers being just the most visible, contested, and precious kind of stuff) He quotes the historian Daniel Walker Howe:
While the growing of cotton came to dominate economic life in the Lower South, the manufacture of cotton textiles was fueling the industrial revolution on both sides of the Atlantic… During the immediate postwar years of 1816 to 1820, cotton constituted 39 percent of U.S. exports; twenty years later the proportion had increased to 59 percent, and the value of the cotton sold overseas in 1836 exceed $71 million. By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.
Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to point out how it’s a mathematical certainty that the air we breathe and the water we drink passed through the lungs and kidneys (respectively) of everyone who ever lived. Likewise, in these Civil War photos, both the destroyed Southern buildings (one of them a US army fort) and the Northern cannons that destroyed them result from the profits of American slavery. Americans like to think about victories in World War II without thinking about the cities and people destroyed in Russia and dozens of other countries (including Japan, Italy, and Germany) that stand behind that war — in no small part because we don’t have to live with them, to walk down those streets, to feel those ghosts. But we’re haunted all the same.
I devoured Steven Johnson’s forthcoming book, Where Good Ideas Come From, over the course of a few bus rides and absolutely loved it. Here’s one bit that’s now stuck in my head:
So, our brains are full of patterns, obviously. One of them is the oscillation between neurons firing all in sync and firing at random—sort of a flip-flop between coherence (the technical term is “phase-lock”) and noise. Well…
In 2007, Robert Thatcher, a brain scientist at the University of South Florida, decided to study the vacillation between phase-lock and noise in the brains of dozens of children. While Thatcher found that the noise periods lasted, on average, for 55 milliseconds, he also detected statistically significant variation among the children. Some brains had a tendency to remain longer in phase-lock, others had noise intervals that regularly approached 60 milliseconds. When Thatcher then compared the brain-wave results with the children’s IQ scores, he found a direct correlation between the two data sets. Every extra millisecond spent in the chaotic mode added as much as 20 IQ points. Longer spells in phase-lock deducted IQ points, though not as dramatically.
Thatcher’s study suggests a counterintuitive notion: the more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are.
(Can we just pause here for a fist-pump and a quiet whispered “yesss”?)
It’s counterintuitive in part because we tend to attribute the growing intelligence of the technology world with increasingly precise electromechanical choreography. Intel doesn’t advertise its latest microprocessors with the slogan: “Every 55 milliseconds, our chips erupt into a blizzard of noise!” Yet somehow brains that seek out that noise seem to thrive, at least by the measure of the IQ test.
A few grafs later, to sum things up, here’s William James by way of Steven Johnson:
Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rareified abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard-of combinations of elements… a seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbling about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant, treadmill routine is unknown, and the unexpected seems the only law.
He’s describing “the highest order of minds”—but he could just as easily be describing a startup, or a city. Which is exactly, I think, the point.
Did you know that Tim is on Twitter? Did you know he posts all sorts of stuff there that you don’t see here—about books, media, politics, culture and more? Did you know that he’s so, so close to 1,000 followers? Did you know that he is secretly running @kanyewest’s account? Did you know that, if you are not yet a Twitter user, the prospect of following Tim is about as good an enticement as I can imagine to sign up?
Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talks about working for Alan Kay, starting the Criterion Collection and Voyager on laserdisc, Hypercard e-books, and interactive CD-ROMs — essentially, the whole prehistory of where we are now with just about all digital media:
The book was always fundamental to me. One of the things I really liked was that the original logo for Criterion, which we designed in 1984, was a book turning into a disc. It was central. When I was writing the paper for Britannica, I felt like I had to relate the idea of interactive media to books, and I was really wrestling with the question “What is a book?” What’s essential about a book? What happens when you move that essence into some other medium? And I just woke up one day and realized that if I thought about a book not in terms of its physical properties—ink on paper—but in terms of the way it’s used, that a book was the one medium where the user was in control of the sequence and the pace at which they accessed the material. I started calling books “user-driven media,” in contrast to movies, television, and radio, which were producer-driven. You were in control of a book, but with these other media you weren’t; you just sat in a chair and they happened to you. I realized that once microprocessors got into the mix, what we considered producer-driven was going to be transformed into something user-driven. And that, of course, is what you have today, whether it’s TiVo or the DVD.
And how did DVDs get commentary tracks? Let Bob tell you:
You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, “Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?” He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track…
We had people driving to our home, where our offices were, by the second day, and begging for copies. It was Los Angeles, it was the film industry—and finally someone had done something serious with film. Film was suddenly being treated in a published form, like literature. But this still wasn’t mainstream. Citizen Kane was three discs and cost $125. It cost us $40 to manufacture. The most LaserDiscs we ever sold was about twenty thousand copies of Blade Runner.
I don’t usually squee with delight, but: Squeee!
It’s all about 0:20 to 0:50 or so. The lazy drifting camera and the soggy street-corner are so unexpected, and so great.
Actually, you know what, I’m missing the point here. What we need is for Luke and Remi and these guys to collaborate.
There are many invented scenes, places, characters, and events I love in my friend and colleague’s novella Annabel Scheme, but my favorite invention is probably the fictional MMORPG “World of Jesus.” An online VR game set in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Here’s why I’m writing about it. Read Write Web has a short write-up of virtual ancient worlds, mostly created by libraries, museums, and universities:
When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn’t create the profit that Doom did.
Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.
There are terrific settings here: Rome, Athens, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing’s Forbidden City. But — and I think this is surprising — no Jerusalem. No World of Jesus.
For those who haven’t read the book, on its face, the game’s name sounds like a clever zinger, like something that would be the punchline to a joke on Futurama or at a relatively hip Bible Camp. But what I think Annabel Scheme does particularly well is pushing past surface details and cute references to dwell within its two worlds, the technological and the spiritual, taking both of them seriously. I can’t think of any better manifestation of that than “World of Jesus.” The character who plays the game believes in this world and his place in it: his religious faith and his technological faith are one and the same, turning a mechanical ritual into treasures in heaven. And so we believe in it, because it’s a reflexive, self-allegorizing move too: for the reader, the fictional San Francisco of Scheme and Hu is just as much a virtual world, with its own enticements, traps, rules and ways to break them, as “World of Jesus” is for them. Dreams within dreams, virtualized virtuality.
It helps that Robin brings some of his most evocative and affecting writing in this chapter, too, as his AI narrator Hu becomes “embodied” for the first time in the world of the game:
The first thing I noticed was the light.
My eyes opened in a small, simple house with wooden shutters, and the light was peeking in through the cracks, picking up motes of dust in the air. I’d never seen anything like it. Are there motes in the real world? Scheme’s earrings didn’t show motes.
In World of Jesus, you could choose between looking over your character’s shoulder or through its eyes. I saw myself from behind, then spun around: I’d chosen the girl in silk.
Then I switched to see through my own eyes. All I ever did was look over Scheme’s shoulder. I wanted a new perspective.
The door opened automatically. Outside, the sun beamed in blue-gold through a scrim of tall cedars and fell in wide bars on a dusty, stone-paved street. Everything looked… mildly medieval. I had a feeling that this Jerusalem was not historically accurate.
I lifted my eyes to the sky, and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was probably just my eight processors all seizing up at once; I wasn’t built for this. Grail servers are optimized to process gobs of text, not 3D graphics, so the carefully-crafted World of Jesus was a new exertion.
I didn’t care. That sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White curls and wisps dotted the glowing blue bowl. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare.
A voice crackled: “Hu, is that you?”
I turned. It was a woman in a simple gray tunic, with red hair just like Scheme’s.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said—and realized that I spoke like everyone else.
Let me tell you something: I think that if a game company were to make it, and do it well, “World of Jesus” would be a smash hit. If you wanted to get your Warcraft on, you could play as a centurion and slash-and-hack Persian armies and crucify dissidents. Or you could be a Jewish rebel fighting to overthrow the Romans. Maybe you’re a female disciple, fighting to retain women’s leadership roles after Christ’s death. Or you’re a regular person: a tax collector, a fisherman, a falafel merchant. An online RPG that doesn’t necessarily have to be about how many people you can kill. (See: “A four-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto.”)
Many faiths, many ages, many games within games. Or if you wanted to play in story mode: what a story!