For the Nerds: Bricks, Blocks, Bots, and Books

I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube — competitively. I never thought much of it until I, for some unknown reason, was recently compelled to tell a girl that story. I now know how nerdy it sounds. The girl and I no longer speak.

Erno Rubik among his Cubes.
Some of the things I grew up doing, I knew were nerdy (e.g., Dungeons & Dragons, LEGOs, computers, etc.). Others were just normal. Looking back on them or still being into them, one sees just how nerdy things can be. In a recent column on his SYFFAL site, my man Tim Baker serves the nerds some venom. Nailing several key aspects of the issue, Baker writes,

Thanks to the proliferation of information on the internet anyone can be an expert in anything, well a self-presumed expert. The problem is that people are choosing to become experts in things that might carry a certain cultural currency in fringe groupings but have no real world value. Comic books and niche music scenes are great, and add to the spice of life but no matter how often the purveyors of such scenes repeat the mantra, they are by no means important. They are entertaining and enjoyable but fail to register on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So while cottage industries have popped up allowing those who are verbose enough to make a case that Led Zeppelin is essential to who we are, it does not change the fact that these experts are dabbling in the shallow end of the pool.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’m the last person to be promoting anything resembling growing up, but I will agree that since the widespread adoption of the web, nerd culture often gets completely out-of-hand. It’s also treated as a choice you can make, but as every true nerd knows, we’re born not made. As my friend Reggie Hancock puts it, citing the most recent nerd icon to end all nerd icons, Tina Fey:

Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd.

To the cheers and glee of nerdkind everywhere, John Baichtal and Joe Meno have edited a collection of ephemera regarding every adults favorite plastic blocks. The Cult of LEGO (No Starch Press, 2011) covers the blocks’ history, how-to, and hi-tech.

Nerd touchstones like comics, movies, LEGO-inspired video games (including Star Wars, of course), Babbage’s Difference Engine, and Turing machines are covered inside, as well as the LEGO font, image-to-brick conversions, home brick-printing, Douglas Couplandbrick artists, record-setting builds, and robots — Mindstorms, LEGO’s programmable robot line, by far the most sophisticated of the LEGO enclaves. Here’s the book trailer [runtime: 1:43]:

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If you want to build stuff with more than just plastic bricks, O’Reilly’s magazine, Make: Technology on Your Time, is the grown-up nerd’s monthly bible. Volume 28 (October, 2011) is all about toys and games. There’s a pumpkin catapult, a kinda-creepy, semi-self-aware stuffed bear, a silly, copper steamboat, a giant bubble blower… It’s all here — and much more. Check the video below [runtime: 2:18].

So, whether you know someone who dweebs over arduinos, has fits over RFIDs, or just loves to build stuff, Make is the magazine. It gets no nerdier. Also, check out the Maker Shed (nerd tools and supplies galore) and Maker’s Notebooks (my favorite thing from this camp).

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Oh, and if you can’t solve the Cube, there’s a LEGO Mindstorms Rubik’s Cube solver on page 245 of The Cult of LEGO. The machine takes an average of six minutes. For the record, my fastest time was 52 seconds.

Get on it, nerds.

Evergreen Halloween: Ten Years of Donnie Darko

This week marks the ten-year anniversary of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. In the time since its inauspicious, post-9/11 release, it has become my favorite movie ever. At the height of my obsession with it, I attended a midnight screening of the director’s cut at The Egyptian Theatre in Seattle. During the trivia contest that preceded the movie, I was asked to sit out due to my answering all of the questions. The movie struck something in me, and I am certainly not alone. As Kelly himself put it, “I think you are challenged by things that are slightly beyond your grasp” (p. xiv). So, this is not another “twenty-five things you didn’t know” or “fifty reasons why it’s the best” (the internet loves this movie), but there are some things about it that I think make it so engaging, endearing, and enduring.

Donnie Darko is set in a Virginia high school 1988. I was in high school during the time, so that connects the film to my life in several ways: The soundtrack, the angst, and the nerdy struggle are all very familiar to me. One of my friends once derided Donnie, saying he was, “so emo he can travel through time,” and I can see how Donnie’s whiney approach to therapy could wear on one, but it’s a minor flaw in a major piece of myth-making.

Like its lauded indie debut cousin Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Darko starts with a conversation scene set over a meal, a scene in which we meet most of the main characters of the film. It’s an elegant and efficient way to establish not only the characters but also their social dynamic. In Reservoir Dogs, the scene revolves around Mr. Blue’s Madonna monologue (which one assumes at this point was written by Roger Avery and not by Quinten Tarantino, who delivers it in the movie), Joe’s address book, and Mr. Pink’s refusal to tip. In Donnie Darko, it revolves around his sister Elizabeth’s (played by his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) politics, Donnie’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) apparent refusal to take his meds, and their use of foul language at the dinner table. In each, the trio of topics reveals just enough about the characters’ attitudes and how they play together.

Aside from Donnie and Elizabeth (played by the the real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Darko family consists of father Eddie (the inimitable Holmes Osborne), mother Rose (the fabulous Mary McDonnell), and kid sister Samantha (Daveigh Chase, the only original Darko defector to the abortive sequel S. Darko). Other stellar performances are turned in by Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), Kitty “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion” Farmer (Beth Grant), Jim Cunnigham (Patrick Swayze, R.I.P.), Ronald Fisher (Stuart Stone), Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), Ricky Danforth (Seth Rogan, in his big-screen debut), Seth Devlin (Alex Greenwald), and, of course, Frank (James Duvall).

Though he’s never formally acknowledged it, Kelly’s Frank the Rabbit character can be interpreted as a play on the pookah legend, which Robert Anton Wilson (1991) explained as follows:

The pookah takes many forms, but is most famous when he appears as a giant, six-foot white rabbit — which is the form most Americans know from the play and film, Harvey. Whatever form the pookah takes, he retains the special ability of his species, which is like that of Thoth in Egyptian legend, Coyote in Native American myth, or Hanuman the Divine Monkey in Hindu lore — he can move us from one universe, or Belief System, into another, and he likes to play games with our ideas about “reality” (p. 29).

Frank is from the future and he mentors Donnie through the film with cryptic guidance and disjointed advice. Like the overall feeling of the film, Frank’s ambiguity keeps Donnie and us wondering exactly what’s in store.

The iconography of Donnie Darko starts with Frank. He is as distinctive a symbol for a movie as there has ever been. The setting and surroundings of Halloween, as well as the late-night bike-ride nod to E.T., are also endemic to this movie. For example, take the music video for “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Bat for Lashes [runtime: 2:59]. Nothing here directly refers to the movie, but the cumulative homage is obvious.

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The references to other movies in Donnie Darko are as subtle as the soundtrack is. Like Tarantino, Kelly uses music to add another element to the film. It’s a different approach to soundtracking than many movies use. For instance, I always wonder what the music in True Romance would’ve entailed had Tarantino ended up directing it as well (Tony Scott did a fine job, but the music is, well, lacking). The music in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction adds so much to the overall feel of the films. Kelly pulled off the same added element with Donnie Darko‘s soundtrack, saying, “there were opportunities in this story to put a musical code on the character’s experience within this era. Picking those songs was, on our part, not to do with making it campy and mocking of the 1980s… We wanted the music to be sincere” (p. xxvii). To wit, the feeling and lyrics of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Killing Moon,” INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” as well as Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” all play with the complex themes of the story.

Somehow in the midst of the musings of a confused, possibly schizophrenic teenage boy, Kelly puts no less than the future of humanity at stake. Drawing from Graham Greene’s “The Destructors,” Richard Adams’ Watership Down (the inspiration for Frank, according to Kelly), and The Last Temptation of Christ (what is Donnie Darko if not a teen angst-ridden, sci-fi version of the Christ narrative?), he carries us to the absolute brink on All Hallow’s Eve. The meaning of all of this is never fully explained, but whatever it means remains important to us. It’s not enough to just like the characters and to wonder. We have to care. As Stephen Jay Gould explained:

But we also need the possibility of cataclysm, so that, when situations seem hopeless, and beyond the power of any natural force to amend, we may still anticipate salvation from a messiah, a conquering hero, a deus ex machina, or some other agent with power to fracture the unsupportable and institute the unobtainable (p. 58).

The official story consists of a rogue alternate universe that must be resolved through a comic-book logic involving Manipulated Living, Manipulated Dead, The Living Receiver (all explained in Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel), and others, but one of the enduring features of Donnie Darko is that even given an “official story,” one can draw many meanings. This is essential to its proven shelf-life.

My favorite scene in the movie is a short snatch of conversation between Donnie’s teachers Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) and Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). He’s grading papers and she’s eating lunch, presumably in the teacher’s lounge at Middlesex High School. Monnitoff mentions Donnie, chuckling incredulously, and she laughs, agreeing. The scene is so brief as to be missable, but it indicates that they’re in on something, that they know the answer. As Christopher Nolan said of Inception, there is an answer. That the answer doesn’t impede further speculation or meaning-mining is one of the things that makes Donnie Darko so tenacious. As Jake Gyllenhaal says, “What does it mean to you?” (p. viii)

If you haven’t seen the film (and of course I think you should), here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:23]:

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References:

Gould, Stephen Jay (1999). Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. New York: Crown.

Kelly, Richard. (2003). The Donnie Darko Book. London: faber and faber.

Wilson, Robert Anton. (1991). Cosmic Trigger, Volume II: Down to Earth. Las Vegas, NV: New Falcon.

Guy Debord: When Poetry Ruled the Streets

Writer, filmmaker, instigator, and revolutionary, Guy Debord is probably best known for his involvement with the Situationist International (McKenzie Wark calls him their “secretary”) and their concepts of the dérive and détournement, the former of which is one of the core ideas of psychogeography, and the latter of which went on to define the culture jamming movement. Their slogans were the words on the walls during the May 1968 uprisings in France. They published the proto-Adbusters of the time, and their spirit hangs heavy over the work of Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Joey Skaggs, The Yes Men, Kembrew McLeod, and other postmodern-day culture jammers and media hackers alike. Greil Marcus (1989) puts them in the lineage of resistance movements: Dada, Surrealism, Situationists, punk rock. Wherever we attribute his influence, Debord lived and loved in line with the thoughts he wrote.

Guy Debord on the set of 'Critique of Separation', 1960

Debord’s best known and best selling book is The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books, 1994; originally published in 1967), and the “spectacle” concept it defined have remained a mainstay of media criticism ever since. Debord biographer Anselm Jappe (1999) wrote, “The spectacle does not reflect society overall; it organizes images in the interest of one portion of society only, and this cannot fail to affect the real social activity of those who merely contemplate these images” (p. 7). Debord (1994) himself wrote, “All that was once lived has become mere representation” (p. 12). Does that sound familiar? It should. He continues, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 12). Defined as such, the spectacle sounds a bit like fellow French thinker Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra, does it not? Debord clarifies, writing that the spectacle has two foundational attributes: “incessant technological renewal” and the “integration of State and economy” (1998, p. 11-12). Nonetheless, Debord’s work has yet to receive the widespread reverence it deserves.

One might be surprised that I implicitly seem to compare myself, here and there, on a point of detail, with some great mind of the past or simply with personalities who have been noted historically. One would be wrong. I do not claim to resemble any other person, and I believe that the present era is hardly comparable to the past. But many figures from the past, in all their extreme diversity, are still quite commonly known. They represent, in brief, a readily accessible index of human behaviour or propensities. Those who do not know who they were can easily find out; and the ability to make oneself understood is always a virtue in a writer.
— Guy Debord, Panegyric 1, p. 8.

One recent attempt to remedy Debord’s unsung unrest comes in the form of Vincent Kaufman’s biography Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (The University of Minnesota Press, 2006; now available in paperback). Kaufmann assumes the role of “unqualified reader,” as he claims no previous fascination or familiarity with Debord. This perspective gives him and his book a unique approach among books about the Situationists. Lacking an “ideological axe to grind” Kaufman sees as imperative to understanding Debord and his life of rebellion, fortunes, misfortunes, adventures, exploration, drifting. “Perhaps it is only by boat that we can really lose ourselves,” he writes, recalling Slavoj Zizek’s metaphor for postmodern rootlessness, and Debord’s persistent pursuit of authentic experience. Of the numerous biographies of Debord and books about Situationists, Kaufman’s is among the best, most thorough, and makes a great introduction to his work and their world.

“I wrote less than those who write,” Debord once said, “but I drank more than hose who drink.” The title of his sixth and final film, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), is a palindrome that he roughly translated to “we turn in the night and are consumed by fire.” If any one phrase could sum up the way the man felt about our media-mad, modern world, that one would do.

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When Poetry Ruled the Streets: This clip from Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) features Adam Goldberg and Nicky Katt as two of the gang of four, and Hymie Samuelson as Guy Debord. [Quicktime clip. Click the image to play; runtime: 2:30]:

References:

Debord, G. (1994). The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Debord, G. (1998). Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. New York: Verso.

Debord. G. (2004). Panegyric 1 & 2. New York: Verso.

Debord, G. (2009). Correspondence: The Foundation of the Situationist International (June 1957 – August 1960). Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Jappe, A. (1999). Guy Debord. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kaufmann, V. (2006). Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Linklater, R. (Writer/Director). (2001). Waking Life [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Marcus, G. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wark, M. (2008). 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. New York: FORuM/Princeton Architectural Press.

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Apologies to Andrew Feenberg and James Freedman for stealing the title of their book for this post. Here is a mini-documentary of Feenberg’s time in Paris in the late 1960s and his archive of posters therefrom. [runtime: 8:36]

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The Greatest Actor of All Time: Nicolas Cage

Few actors have had careers anywhere near as diverse and dynamic as Nicolas Cage. A member of the Royal Coppola Family, Cage has been in everything from goofy teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to mind-blowing, block-busting adventures like National Treasure (2004). His acting agility is abetted by his willingness and ability to take on challenging roles that other thespians of his caliber wouldn’t think of accepting — and pulling them off without dumbing them down. As Roger Ebert once put it,

There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air. No one else can project inner trembling so effectively…. He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.

The filmic examples are seemingly endless, so instead of surveying his career in its entirety, I will concentrate on three representative films: Raising Arizona (1987), Matchstick Men (2003), and the indisputable greatest movie of all time, Con Air (1997).

Francis McDormand once said that one can’t make any money working on a Cohen Brothers film. While I’m sure that’s changed since (this statement was made pre-Fargo), I think most would agree that for an actor, working with Ethan and Joel Cohen is an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity to establish oneself artistically. No one has done this more fervently in one film than Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona. With his career stretched out before him like a sleepy kitten, Cage took on the lead role in a film that would define one of the many facets of his style as an actor. H. I. McDunnough is a good-for-nothing, two-bit thief who falls in love with a police officer hell-bent on raising a family. After an intermittent courtship involving H. I.’s lengthening rap sheet, the ultimately infertile couple marry and attempt to have children. Seeing a news story about a couple who has more offspring than they can handle, they decide to steel one. Hi-jinks ensue, and the doomed H.I. is caught between his old ways as a thief and his new life as a family man, with the two inextricably intertwined like so many lovers’ legs.

In the similarly quirky Wild at Heart (the plot of which I always confuse with True Romance, perhaps because of their similarly Westbound plots and blonde love interests), Cage would almost reprise this role. He was to all but abandon this kind of character later in his career, save maybe Adaptation (2002) and, our last stop, Matchstick Men (2003).

What did he abandon the weirdness for? Action, of course, and Cage’s crowning achievement, Con Air (1997) is jam-packed with it. This Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle crashes and burns in the best possible way: right into Las Vegas! Where else are you going to see oddball jokesters like Steve Buscemi, Dave Chappelle, and John Leguizamo teamed-up with powerhouse hunks like John Travolta, Vin Diesel, and Ving Rhames, alongside A-list actors like John Cusak,  John Malkovich, Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, and Nicolas Cage in the same movie? Bob Stephenson is even in here! What happened to the casting director on this star-studded screen scorcher? Fired for awesomeness? How about the screenwriter or the director?

The Ridley Scott-directed Matchstick Men (2003) tells the story of an obsessive-compulsive con man getting conned out of everything. Sam Rockwell plays the partner-cum-con (Frank Mercer) who uses a young girl, Angela (played by Alison Lohman), posing as Roy Waller’s (Cage) estranged daughter. Matchstick Men (and Adaptation, pictured below, by proxy) is less important for Cage’s role per se than it is for his role at the time it happened: dead in the middle of a string of Cage-fronted action movies. In the midst of constant reminders of his action-hero status, Matchstick Men recalled a younger, weirder Nicolas Cage, and reminded everyone of his immense on-screen strengths.

So, in brief, Nicolas Cage is the greatest actor to ever entertain a darkened theater. I dare you to come up with a stronger, more genuine, more diverse body of work.

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“…I was just admirin’ your cage.” Here’s the trailer for The Greatest Movie of All Time, Con Air (1997) [runtime: 2:23]:

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The BMX-Files: A Brief History in Two DVDs

In the June, 1987 issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, underground BMX rider and zine-maker Carl Marquardt described a ramp trick he called a “flakie”: a backflip fakie air. His friend and fellow rider Paul Mackles had offered him $100 if he pulled it. Three years later, Mat Hoffman did the damn thing at a contest in Paris. In his usual methodical style, Mat worked on it in secret in Oklahoma for months beforehand. As he puts it in The Ride of My Life (Harper-Entertainment, 2002), “To make it, I needed at least six feet of air so my head would clear the coping. It was the kind of stunt that required 100 percent conviction each time. I practiced them every day until I had the flip fakie pretty wired, landing high on the transition rather than jarring into the flat bottom Then, I got invited to France.” The photos of Mat’s first public flip-fakie landed on several magazine covers, including the July, 1990 issue of Go: The Rider’s Manual (the publication that combined FREESTYLIN’ with its forebear, BMX Action).

Mat Hoffman burst into the BMX mass mind via the letters page of FREESTYLIN’. Masquerading as the then thirteen-year-old Mat, his mom sent in a picture of him blasting a nine-foot air on his driveway quarterpipe. In his response, editor Andy Jenkins’ described the air as “not normal,” and I think everyone — myself included — knew we were going to see a lot more of this high-flying kid in the coming years. Even so, little did we know…

More than once, Mat Hoffman has been called the “Michael Jordan of BMX.” As Tony Hawk — who could be considered Mat’s equivalent in skateboarding — puts it in The Birth of Big Air (Team Marketing, 2010), “If you know anything about BMX, you know who Mat Hoffman is. And maybe that’s all you know.” This movie illustrates why that’s the case. He’s paid the price for his place in BMX lore — with his body. “There’s not an extremity he hasn’t broken in a violent manner,” says Mat’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Carlan Yates. Mat’s basically dedicated his physical form to the advancement of BMX. There have been smoother riders, there have been people who’ve done it longer, there are people finishing things Mat only started, but no one — no one — has pushed the limits of vert riding on a BMX bike more than Mat Hoffman has. No one. Ever.

“Let’s just say it would’ve sucked to have been born a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now because I would’ve missed out on all of this.” — Dennis McCoy

If you have any doubts about the pedigree of BMX as a sport, Joe Kid on a Stingray (Bang Pictures, 2005) will put them to rest. Its twisted and dirty 1970s roots are exposed and explained. Watching grainy footage of Stu Thomson winning races on a Schwinn Stingray is as sketchy as it is sick. Any story of people sitting on the verge of something that has become as big as BMX has is inspiring, and Joe Kid… is no exception.

“Ask anyone, ‘who invented freestyle?’ Bob Haro!” — Ron Wilkerson

From imitating motocross riders to emulating skateboard tricks, BMX evolved from racing to freestyling (all of which is just called “BMX” these days). Bob Haro was bored with racing and started doing tricks between motos. Eventually, his wheelies, endos, and 180s lead to actual sanctioned freestyle shows at the races. Through touring and innovating, Haro, R.L. Osborn, Mike Buff, Pat Romano, and Ron Wilton made trick riding into something to be taken seriously.

“Maybe that’s our problem. Maybe we just never grew up.” — Bob Osborn

It would be remiss to document the history of BMX without mentioning Bob Osborn. Through BMX Action and FREESTYLIN’ (and their aforementioned combined form, Go), Osborn, his son R. L., and his daughter Windy created the look of BMX media and brought the sport to the world. They also acquainted the world with Andy Jenkins, Mark Lewman, and Spike Jones, who have all gone on to create other great things in art, movies, television, skateboarding, and advertising. Trusting the youth is often difficult for adults to do, but Bob did, and the world is much better for it.

In the late 1980s, I was street riding with some friends in Huntsville, Alabama. One of them, Dave Nash, was wearing these Airwalks held together with duct tape. Someone there asked him why he didn’t just get some new shoes, and he responded, “Because I don’t want to spend any more money on this sport.” It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say. The initial decline of BMX was a scary, strange thing to witness as a kid, but it was actually a positive move. Just as skateboarding had done before it, BMX changed hands from the companies to the riders.

Speaking of, anyone know where Chris Moeller was during the making of this movie? In many ways, S&M Bicycles, along with the efforts of Hoffman, Wilkerson, and the Plywood Hoods, represents the largely unsung part of the bridge from what BMX was in the 1980s to what it is now.

Anyway, big props to Jeff Tremaine, Mark Lewman, Johnny Knoxville, and Mark Eaton for documenting the history of our sport. If you’re a hardcore BMXer of any era, these two movies are your history. If you are bike-curious but know nothing about the sport, these two movies will give you a pretty in-depth crash course.

I don’t know if Mat Hoffman ever collected Paul Mackles’ money for doing Carl Marquardt’s “flakie,” but he was in the same issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, along with another youngster Scotty Freeman, in a piece called “Little Giants.” He was fifteen years old.

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Here’s the official teaser for Joe Kid on a Stingray [runtime: 3:25]:

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Special thanks to Brian Tunney for additional reporting and fact-checking.

The Essential Tension of Ideas

One of the key insights in Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset (Harper, 2010) is that rapid transit increases the exchange of ideas and thereby spurs innovation. Where the car used to provide this mass connection, now it hinders it. Increasingly, our cognitive surplus is sitting traffic.

Ideas are networks, Steven Johnson argues in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From (Riverhead, 2010). The book takes Florida’s tack, comparing cities to coral reefs in that their structure fosters innovation. Good ideas come from connected collectives, so connectivity is paramount.

Human history in essence is the history of ideas. — H. G. Wells

On the other end of the spectrum, in a recent post about Twitter, David Weinberger writes,

…despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

His description sounds like we’re evening out our representations of our online selves, reconciling them with our IRL selves, initiating a corrective of sorts. Coincidentally, in their sad version of “The SEED Salon,” a recent issue of WIRED had Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss the roots of innovation (by way of plugging their respective new books; here they are discussing same at the New York Public Library). Kelly states,

Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

It sounds as though Weinberger and Kelly are calling for or defending a sort of “infodiversity,” which one would think would be a core tenet of media ecology. As Kelly puts it in What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010), “Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information” (p. 10). He continues in WIRED,

To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

In science, Thomas Kuhn called this idea “the essential tension.” In his book of the same name (University of Chicago Press, 1977), he described it as a tug-of-war between tradition and innovation. Kuhn wrote that this tension is essential, “…because the old must be revalued and reordered when assimilating the new” (p. 227). This is one of those ideas that infects one’s thinking in toto. As soon as I read about the essential tension, I began to see it everywhere — in music, in movies, in art, and indeed, in science. In all of the above, Weinberger, Johnson, and Kelly are all talking about and around this idea, in some instances the innovation side, and in others, the tradition side. We need both.

One cannot learn anything that is more than one step away from what one already knows. Learning progresses one step or level at a time. Johnson explores this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From by evoking Stuart Kauffman‘s “adjacent possible” (a term Johnson uses hundreds of times to great annoyance). The adjacent possible is that next step away. It is why innovation must be rooted in tradition. Go too far out and no one understands you, you are “ahead of your time.” Take the next step into the adjacent possible that no one else saw, and you have innovated. Taken another way, H. G. Wells once said that to write great science fiction, one must adopt a perspective that is two steps away from the current time. Going only one away is too familiar, and three is too far out. As Kelly puts it in the WIRED piece, “Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.” A new technology, literally “the knowledge of a skill,” is–in its very essence–the same thing as a new idea. For instance, Apple’s Newton was too many steps ahead of or away from what was happening at the time of its release. I’m sure you can think of several other examples.

Johnson, who has a knack for having at least one (usually more) infectious idea per book, further addresses the process of innovation with what he calls the “slow hunch.” This is the required incubation period of an innovative idea. The slow hunch often needs to find another hunch in order to come to fruition. That is, one person with an idea often needs to be coupled with another who has an idea so that the two can spur each other into action, beyond the power of either by itself (see the video below for a better explanation). It’s an argument for our increasing connectivity, and a damn good one.

That is not to say that there aren’t and won’t be problems. I think Kevin Kelly lays it out perfectly here:

…[T]here will be problems tomorrow because progress is not utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expending possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now (p. 101).

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Here’s the book trailer for Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From [runtime: 4:07]:

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References:

Florida, R. (2010). The great reset. New York: Harper.

Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from. New York: Riverhead.

Kelly, K. (2010). What technology wants. New York: Viking.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The essential tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weinberger, D. (2010). “Why it’s good to be boring on the web.” JoHo The Blog.

WIRED. (2010, October) “Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on where ideas come from.” Wired.com.

Desiring Lines: The Path More Traveled

Campus sidewalks meander between places of interest, connecting buildings and parking lots in a maze of concrete stripes. Often where their right angles turn near grassy areas between them and another building or parking lot, there are paths leading off diagonally. These forking paths are called “desire lines,” so named because they show where people would rather walk. There’s a story circulating that says good engineers (or lazy ones, depending on who tells the story; see Brand, 1994, p. 187) put sidewalks in last as to follow the desire lines and avoid wear on the grass. Desire lines illustrate the tension between the native and the built environment and our relationship to them.

Desire lines are where the system – the system of people in conjunction with their built environment – asserts itself. “Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived,” wrote Gaston Bachelard in his book The Poetics of Space (1958). “These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space… Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs” (p. 12).

Our dealings with Nature are just lines in innumerable directions.
— William James

In A Line Made by Walking (Afterall Books, 2010), Dieter Roelstraete examines a series of art work and black and white photographs thereof by Richard Long. In 1967, while a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, Long wore single, straight line on a hillside outside of London. His single photograph of the line wore his name into the annals of art like so many footsteps on that hill. The piece, also dubbed A Line Made by Walking, Roelstraete writes, “equally belongs to the histories of early Conceptual art, Land art, performance or body art…” and experiments in photography, among others (p. 2). It was Long’s first recognized piece of art and set in motion a career that took art out of the gallery and into the landscape. Roelstraete’s book explores his work, but also the many trajectories that spin off of it. Travel, technology’s influence thereon, walking, performance, and the relationship of the body to the world.

Rebecca Solnit has done the best job of exploring the history and philosophy of walking and thinking. Roelstraete situates Long’s work in relation to Solnit, quoting Solnit’s Wanderlust: A history of walking (2001): “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them… Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it” (p. 27; p. 5). Richard Long’s work and Dieter Roelstraete’s book about it illustrate this thought in lines both walked and written.

By the way, A Line Made By Walking (the book) is an entry in Afterall’s “One Work” series, each of which explores a particular piece of art and how it changed art and our perception of it, not unlike what Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series does for records. Both are highly recommended.

Desire lines and the meditations in A Line Made by Walking remind me that aspects of our lives only matter because a certain amount of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons — that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

To read Solnit, you’d think we’d decided that walking no longer matters. She writes,

Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination. (p.250)

Though I’m less pessimistic than Solnit sounds above, I acknowledge that technology often makes decisions for us. Often we aren’t left a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available — a sidewalk in the current example. But, as GeorgieR, an admin for the Desire Path Flickr Group, puts it,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made, but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Desire lines illustrate our endless ability to stray anyway.

References:

Bachelard, G. (1958). The poetics of space. New York: Beacon.

Brand, S. (1994) How building learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.

James, W. (1903). The varieties of religious experience. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Roelstraete, D. (2010). Richard Long: A line made by walking. London: Afterall Books.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.

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Special thanks to Katie Arens for introducing me to the concept of desire lines.

Scatological Eschatologies: The End is Nigh

“Survivalism isn’t about staying alive. It’s about choosing how you die,” writes Neil Strauss in Emergency (It Books, 2009). Strauss, who’s formerly written books with rock stars, porn stars, and pick-up artists, stepped up his game with this one. In the wake of 9/11 and hurricane Katrina, Strauss had a bit of an epiphany. Acknowledging that if he was involved in a major catastrophe, he wouldn’t be much help — unless helping involved a working knowledge of rock and roll and its many trappings — Strauss set out to get himself prepared. From securing dual citizenship and caching supplies to living without electrical power and knowing the quickest escape route from harm’s way, Strauss trained and drilled until he was/is ready for just about anything. Strauss and Emergency go further than you or I probably will, but surviving the extreme means going to extremes.

Speaking of, having seen Zombieland (2009) a few times now, I keep meaning to finish The Zombie Survival Guide (Three Rivers Press, 2003). If the latter didn’t inform the former, something is wrong with the world of zombie-world end-time speculation. Barry Brummett (1991) writes that apocalyptic rhetors “claim special knowledge of a hidden order, to advise others to make great sacrifices on the basis of that knowledge, even to predict specific times and place for the end of the world.” Well, Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks, has the zombie-pocalypse covered in this easy to read guide to hiding from, running from, and straight-up killing zombies. There are rules (as there are in Zombieland), and you must follow them if you are to survive. The most telling? #5: “Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair,” and #4: “Blades don’t need reloading.” This book is your one-stop guide to all things zombie-survival.

Oh, and say what you want about Zombieland. That movie is an all-out riot (If the titles alone don’t make you squirm, cringe, and laugh out loud, you should probably check your pulse). It succeeds where Inglorious Basterds fails. It takes unrelenting violence against a group vilified by all (zombies in one case, Nazis in the other) and makes it feverishly fun and funny.

Anyway, I’ve never really considered myself that concerned with the end of the world, but it’s clearly hanging heavy in the mass-mind. Brummett (1991) also writes that the strategy of apocalyptic rhetoric is “to respond to a sense of chaos and anomie, whether acute or potential, with reassurances of a plan that is ordering history” (p. 87). Between the looming zombie-pocalypse, the impending whatever of December 21, 2012, and the global Dutch oven in which we’re cooking, there are certainly those who would have us believe that our doom is imminent. It’s best we be prepared.

P. S. Whatever you think of the movie, check out the soundtrack to Zombieland. It was scored by David Sardy (who also did the score to 21, produced a bunch of your favorite records, and was the main man behind the band Barkmarket).

[Illustration by royc.]

References:

Brooks, M. (2003). The zombie survival guide. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Brummett, B. (1991). Contemporary apocalyptic rhetoric. New York: Praeger.

Polone, G. (Producer), & Fleischer, R. (Writer/Director). (2009). Zombieland [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Strauss, N. (2009). Emergency: This book will save your life. New York: It Books.

Thinking Systems

In his epic, futurist tome The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler (1980) wrote that we need to “move from a Second Wave culture that [has] emphasized the study of things in isolation from one another to a Third Wave culture that emphasizes contexts, relationships, and wholes” (p. 300-301), what Herman Witkin calls “field dependence.” Taking the long view, considering the context, and how one thing influences another — these are all things we would do well to do at all times. General system theory as conceived by Ludwig von Bertalanffy provides a rich framework for just this type of thinking.

“A system,” writes Bertalanffy’s biographer Mark Davidson, “like a work of art, is a pattern rather than a pile. Like a piece of music, it’s an arrangement rather than an aggregate” (1983, p. 27). In other words, a system is an assemblage that is arranged to serve a purpose. Whereas Camus insisted that there were no ends, only means, Bertalanffy saw them as one and the same. The system is its own means and its own end.

Framing things as systems inherently simplifies them. Sometimes this is done by leaving certain aspects out, sometimes by artificially drawing boundaries around a “whole.” As Manuel De Landa puts it, this

point of view allows for the emergence of wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, but only if specific historical processes — specific interactions between ‘lower scale entities’ — can be shown to have produced such wholes. Thus, in my view, institutional organizations like bureaucracies, banks, and stock markets acquire a life of their own from the interactions of individuals. From the interactions of those institutions, cities emerge, and from the interactions between cities, nation states emerge. Yet, in these bottom-up approaches, all the heterogeneity of real nation states can be pockets of minorities, the dialect differences, the local transience — unlike when history is modeled on totalities (concepts like ‘society’ or ‘culture’ or ‘the system’). In this latter situation, homogeneity has to be artificially injected into the model (quoted in Miller, 2007, p. 71-72).

The main criticism of systems theory is its quasi-functionalist embrace of the needs of the system over those of the humans involved. Where one view seems to favor the system over all else (cf. Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavasky’s Risk and Culture; 1982), Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems (2008) shows how framing risks and problems in their context can help us understand and even control them better. Acknowledging the artificial nature of “closing off” systems for study, Meadows (2008) wrote, “The right boundary for thinking about a problem rarely coincides with the boundary of an academic discipline, or with a political boundary” (p. 98).

De Landa (1997) wraps it up eloquently, writing, “…[M]uch as sedimentary rocks, biological species, and social hierarchies are all stratified systems, so igneous rocks, ecosystems, and markets are self-consistent aggregates, the result of the coming together and interlocking of heterogeneous elements” (p. 66). We are — and we live in — a system of interacting systems. The better we understand them as such, the better off we will be.

References:

Bertalanffy, L. v. (1968). General system theory. New York: George Braziller, Inc.

Davidson, M. (1983). Uncommon sense: The life and thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

De Landa, M. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.

Douglas, M. & Wildavasky, A. (1982). Risk and culture. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Miller, P. D. (2007). ILLogical Progression. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for now: Interviews with friends and heroes (pp.). Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave. New York: Bantam.

Witkin, H. A. & Goodenough, D. R. (1981). Cognitive styles: Essence and origins. New York: International Universities Press.

Race for the Prize: 90s Music Biographies

The music scene of the 1990s was confused. At the turn of that last decade, Hip-hop was displacing Metal as the top-selling genre, and Nirvana was allegedly setting off the so-called “alternative revolution,” yet Guns ‘N Roses was all over MTV with opulent, twelve-minute videos and all over the charts with an epic double CD. The world was wild at heart and weird on top.

Black PostcardsUnderneath that odd veneer of mainstream schizophrenia, independent music was thriving. Dean Wareham is one of the unsung architects of indie rock. His bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, helped define a sound and an era. Black Postcards (Penguin, 2008) is his memoir of the making of that sound, a glimpse at a time in music that is all but long gone: days of record stores, seven inch records and colored vinyl releases, vans and venues, maps and menues… Wareham did his share of time in this world, roaming the land beneath the radar. It was a time when, as he writes, “It was odd playing to an audience of eleven, and then being interviewed as if anyone cared what we had to say about anything” (p. 63).

Wareham’s stories are an in-depth look at band dynamics during a chaotic era and how the music industry worked at the height of its excesses, as well as how Wareham himself negotiated both — an era where label heads describe bands like Luna as “little boats,” saying, “There are too many small boats in the harbor. They’re all trying to get out to sea. But it’s crowded — so many little boats, the big boats can’t get out to sea. It’s terrible” (p. 176). This is when record store shelf space was at a higher premium, before the digital revolution made records in the long tail profitable.

Black Postcards is largely well written and a fun read, even if a bit snarky and nitpicky in places (plenty of venom for Seattle bands, digital technology, The Pixies, etc.), but who wouldn’t, if given such a chance to do so, try to even the score a bit? Even when he’s a grumpy old man about things, his insights are astute. In regard to the music business’s financial woes, he tackles the concert business as well, writing,

There were hundreds of bands out there, booking the clubs months in advance, playing their stupid songs. there is something tribal about it — different groups of men wearing different kinds of rock clothing, descended from different rock traditions, singing their songs and dressing up and dancing around, competing with other groups of men for an audience’s attention (p. 293).

Wareham is also the only other person I know of who likens Eddie Vedder’s voice to Cher’s. Anyway, couple this book with Matthew Buzzell’s Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me (Rhino, 2006), and you have a crash course in Wareham’s world of the 90s, as well as two of its most critically renowned and respected outfits.

[Note: While reading Wareham’s book, I also started reading Alfred Jarry’s Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician which was most recently published by the Exact Change imprint. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Exact Change is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, also known as the other two-thirds of Galaxie 500. The coincidence was far too weird to ignore.]

Staring at SoundSpeaking of renowned, respected, and weird, Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, 2006) presents a wholly different view of the same era. If Galaxie 500’s records sounded like they came “from another planet,” then The Flaming Lips are still orbiting some other sun. Staring at Sound does a great job of following their formation from their old meat locker practice space to clubs all over the globe, from parking lots across America to the big screen in Christmas on Mars (2008).

Lead Lip Wayne Coyne talks about not being able to relate to bands from New York such as Sonic Youth, but feeling completely natural broing down with San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers. His musings on recording, filming, and performing are intriguing and enlightening. It’s funny, in some aspects, these guys are so regular. In others, their brains are in backwards. Both cases make their story thus far fun and freaky, and DeRogatis does a fine job telling it.

By the way, like me, Jim DeRogatis spent the 90s writing about music for magazines. Unlike me, Jim got his musings collected and published. One of his previous books, Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s (Da Capo, 2003) is one man’s close-up view of the build-up and breakdown of the music of the time.

On another planet still, but coming up during the same era, Pantera defined a different kind of 90s music. At a time when Heavy Metal was supposed to be dead (friend and fellow writer Adem Tepedelen wrote at the time that metal wasn’t dead, it was “just wounded and pissed off!”), the Cowboys from Hell were debuting records at the top of the charts — back when that meant selling hundreds of thousands of records in just a few days (1994’s Far Beyond Driven sold 186,000 copies in its first week). Their guitarist, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was adored and hailed by everyone who knew him and his playing.

Black Tooth GrinBlack Tooth Grin by Zac Crain (Da Capo, 2009) tells Dimebag’s story, from his birth in Arlington, Texas to his death on stage in Columbus, Ohio, from Pantera’s glittery late-80s beginnings to their chart-destroying reign as one of Metal’s most unrelenting acts. Through it all, Dimebag managed to remain a blue-collar Texas everyman while simultaneously becoming a certified Metal guitar god. He was a genuine guy no matter, always ready to buy a tray of shots for the friends at the bar. As friend and business partner Larry English puts it, “There was no fake Dime” (p. 258). He wasn’t quite on his way to burning out, but he never got the chance to fade away. Among many other things about Dimebag, Crain’s book sheds new light on that harrowing night in Columbus in 2004. Dean Wareham may have gotten yelled at by fans for breaking up Galaxie 500, but he didn’t get gunned down for it.

Metal always gets a bad rap when it comes to those who typically write about music. It’s often depicted as cartoonish and silly, the very antithesis of punk or indie rock (Hip-hop is often treated the same way, as if one genre is more “true” or “real” than another). This elitism, if I may call it such, is the antithesis of what I thought the whole punk rock/DIY idea was about. It often seems like less of a dislike for the genre, and more of a contempt for its fans. You might not enjoy Pantera, maybe you think they’re baffoons and their fans are worse, but they did exactly what anyone else who’s ever wanted to play music for a living did — and they never compromised what they wanted that music to be.

The 90s were a weird time for music, and one that we’re not likely to see again. These three books offer three different glimpses into that time and how three bands navigated it — all with varying degrees of success, bitterness, and carnage, but all with a damn good story.

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By the way, if you like the behind the music stories no matter the genre, I also recommend The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss (ReganBooks, 1998) and for added debauchery, check out The Dirt by Motley Crue and Neil Strauss (HarperEntertainment, 2002) and Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind (Feral House, 2003). Oh, and I can never say enough good about Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series.