Temporary Eponymous Zone: SXSW 2012

SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.

I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.

Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7’s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.

Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.

Ume's Lauren Larson rocking Stubb's. (photo by Lily Brewer)

Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and I hamming it up in the green room. (photo by David Ewald)

While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.

Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.

This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.

————

Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.

Terminal Philosophy: A Cultural History of Airports

My dad is an air traffic controller, so I’ve grown up with a special relationship with airports. These grounded waystations are like family members, some close siblings, some distant cousins. Is there a more interstitial space than an airport? It is the most terminally liminal area: between cities, between flights, between appointments, between everything. The airport is a place made up of on-the-ways, not-there-yets, missed-connections. The airport is a place made up of no-places.

Above SFO (photo by Brady Forrest)

In the late 1970s, Brian Eno attempted to sonically capture the in-between feeling of being in a airport. He’d already started making “unfinished” or ambient music, but this was his first with a specific, spatial focus. I seem to remember conflicting reports of where Eno came up with the idea for airport music, but he told Stephen Colbert that he was in a beautiful, new airport in Cologne and everything was lovely except for the music. “What kind of music ought to be in an airport? What should we be hearing here?” Eno says he thought at the time. “I thought that most of all, that you wanted music that didn’t try to pretend that you weren’t going to die on the plane.”

In a recent interview in The Believer, Laurie Anderson talks about the in-between of airports and Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport (Profile, 2009), in which he explores Heathrow airport:

Because you go through Heathrow or any airport and you go, What’s behind that hollow cardboard wall? And he decided to find out, so he spent time there, and every time I’ve been through Heathrow since then, I know what’s behind those walls. The way the whole airport shakes every time an airplane lands, you’re like, ‘Am I in a structure or just a diagram of a structure?’ You’re not really sure. Added to the fact that there are no clocks there, either, so you’re sort of lost in this flimsy world, which is the way they would like to keep it.

In Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports (Continuum Books, 2012) he explores the texts of these structures, structures whose flimsy architecture veils stories of spaces in between public and private, screening and secreting. They’re not home and they’re not hotels. Schaberg reads airports as texts to be read, but he also looks at the very idea of reading in airports, which is a common practice. Where else do you get stuck that there’s almost always a bookstore nearby? Ironic that we need the forced downtime of a long flight or layover to do something so rewarding, and I’m speaking for myself as much as anyone as I look forward to that time and meticulously compile what it is I will read while traveling.

Schaberg’s travels through the texts of airports include many actual texts about flying, but also his time working in an airport. Inevitably, 9/11 plays a major part in these texts and his reading of them. If nothing else, that day affected us all when it comes to air travel. Everything from Steven Speliberg’s Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) to Don Delillo’s Falling Man (Scribner, 2007) runs through Schaberg’s screening machine. It’s an amazingly subtle analysis of a very disruptive event.

“Most of us want to reach our destination as quickly and safely as possible,” writes Alastair Gordon in Naked Airport (University of Chicago Press, 2008; p. 4), which Ian Bogost mentioned in our 2010 Summer Reading List. The book is a cultural history of airport structures. His approach is starkly different from Schaberg’s, taking a distinctly historical view from 1924 to 2000 and how each of these eras dealt with the structure of airports qua airports. Gordon’s text is definitive, taking into account how historical events shaped the built environment of flight through every era. Everything from Roosevelt’s New Deal to 1960’s stewardess wear figures in the story. Naked Airport is a seductive, secret history of a common structure.

Books are always a good idea when traveling via airplane, but I urge you to consider these two texts the next time you leave home. They will enlighten your flight (and your in-betweens) in more ways than one.

————-

Here’s the clip of Brian Eno on The Colbert Report from November 10, 2011 [runtime: 6:27], in which he briefly discusses Music for Airports:

References:

Botton, Alain de (2009). A Week at the Airport. London: Profile Books.

Gordon, Alastair. (2008). Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schaberg, Christopher. (2012). The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum Books.

Stern, Amanda. (2012, January). Being an Artist is a Totally Godlike Thing to Do–And I Have a God Complex: An Iterview with Laurie Anderson. The Believer, 10(1).

2011: Are You Going to Eat That?

It’s December and time to reassess the year, and 2011 is a joy to revisit. It was easily my best year ever personally. I signed a book deal, spoke at several conferences with some of my best friends, got engaged to a wonderful woman, built some new bikes, redesigned my website (finally), and finished coursework and comprehensive exams on my way to a Ph.D., among other things.

This year was crazy, from the death of Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street to the ramping up of some sort of political happening. I also saw, listened to, and read a lot of good stuff. Here is the best of the media I consumed this year:

Album of the Year: Hail Mary Mallon Are You Going to Eat That? (Rhymesayers):  Hail Mary Mallon is the melding of word-murdering minds Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic and the laser-precise cuts of DJ Big Wiz, all three Def Jux alumni and no strangers to the raps and beats in their own rights. In the interest of full disclosure, these dudes are my friends. To be perfectly honest, if they were wack they wouldn’t be.

These three have been touring and clowning together for years in different guises, and it’s obvious when you hear how well they play together. Are you Going to Eat That? is the dopest record out this year.

Production-wise, “Mailbox Baseball” sounds like an Iron Galaxy outtake, while “Grubstake” evokes the stripped down reduction—all 808s and sparse scratches—of a salad-day-era Rick Rubin. Aes and Rob pass the mic like the Treacherous Three. “Table Talk” is a 21st-century “High-Plains Drifter.” But don’t get any of this twisted: this is not a throwback, it’s a leap forward.

It’s all good (“Breakdance Beach” is dope, though it does get grating upon repeated listens), and the skills are barn-razing and bar-raising. Whether it’s Hannibal Lector or Cannibal Ox, Hail Mary Mallon prove that rap will eat itself.

Here’s their video for “Meter Feeder” [runtime: 3:47] directed by Alexander Tarrant and Justin Metros:

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Close Second: Radiohead The King of Limbs (Waste): “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt…” The most important band in the world has returned with another cure for the malaise of the age. Pick one: They’ve saved rock and roll, killed rock and roll, and still emerged from the muck of the music industry well ahead of the curve. Everyone in media keeps them under the microscope to see how they will win. Again. Lean in, here’s the secret:

Radiohead makes great records.

And they do it consistently. They’re also quite adept at parsing the patterns on the horizon of the mediascape, but that wouldn’t matter if their records weren’t good. Damn good.

The King of Limbs is no exception. It’s more mellow than the sparsest parts of Amnesiac, but not nearly as insular. It might be their most even record. Thom Yorke’s voice, which I have to admit used to grate on me as often as it moved me, has gotten mature enough to carry the toughest of tunes. He is the voice of Radiohead, literally and figuratively (no small task either way), and he handles it with confidence and control.

Radiohead was never as joyfully abrasive as Sonic Youth or The Flaming Lips, but The King of Limbs reminds me of the releases of the former’s A Thousand Leaves and the latter’s The Soft Bulletin. All three records are still weird in their ways, but they’re also far more subtle than the previous work of their creators. Radiohead have always been masters of subtlety, and with The King of Limbs, they’ve earned their Ph.D. It’s such a tease and such a flirt.

Even Closer Third: Ume Phantoms (Modern Outsider): If ever a band were poised for the next level, Ume has been teetering there headlong for the better part of the past few years. Phantoms is the kind of record that neuters naysayers and emboldens enthusiasts. Lauren, Eric, and Rachel are some of the friendliest folks you’re likely to meet, but on stage they are ferocious. While Eric (bass) and Rachel (drums) are the stable and able drivetrain, Lauren (guitar and vocals) is the high-octane, internal combustion engine, careening ahead on the edge of control. Theirs is pop music in the sense that it’s explosive. Their live shows are where the real, volatile magic happens, but Phantoms captures their energy serviceably. For further evidence, here’s the video for “Captive” from Phantoms directed by Matt Bizer [runtime: 4:01], the most shared video on MTV.com:

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Runners Up: Wolves in the Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord), Seidr For Winter Fire (Flenser), Cloaks Versions Grain (3by3), Jesu Ascension (Caldo Verde), Big Sean Finally Famous (GOOD Music), Knives From Heaven s/t (Thirsty 3ar), Pusha T Fear of God/Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up), Random Axe s/t (Duck Down), IconAclass For the Ones (deadverse), Crack Epidemic American Splendor (self-released), Deafheaven Roads to Judah (Deathwish), Panopticon Social Disservices (Flenser), Graveyard Hisingen Blues (Nuclear Blast).
Most Overrated: Opeth Heritage (Roadrunner), Kanye West & Jay-Z Watch the Throne.

Live Show of the Year: Deftones, June 4, 2011, Austin Music Hall, Austin, TX: Say what you will, but it’s absolutely unfair to lump Deftones in with bands they have next-to-nothing to do with (e.g., Limp Bizkit, Korn, Tool, et al). Deftones are as sophisticated as they are heavy and as beautiful as they are aggressive, as much like the Cure as they are Clutch. Their live show confirms all of this and more.
Runners Up: Mogwai, May 16, Stubbs, Austin, TX; Wolves in the Throne Room, September 27, Red 7, Austin, TX.

Comedian of the Year: Louis CK: No one else comes close.

Event of the Year: South by Southwest: SXSW is always a blurry blast, but this year was especially good. I got the opportunity to speak at Interactive and run around with friends seeing great music the rest of the time. You know who you are. Here’s to next year.
Runners Up: SF MusicTech Summit, Geekend Roadshow Boston.
Most Overrated: TEDxAustin.

Book of the Year: James Gleick The Information (Pantheon Books): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the best book of the year.
Runners Up: Insect Media by Jussi Parikka (University of Minnesota Press), The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading by Peter Lunenfeld (The MIT Press), The Beach Beneath the Street by McKenzie Wark (Verso), remixthebook by Mark Amerika (University of Minnesota Press), Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland (Atlas & Co.).
Most Overrated: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown).

Educator of the Year: Howard Rheingold: Howard’s homegrown Rheingold University started this year and quickly established an impressive online curriculum. I took the first class and joined the very active alumni in continuing our co-learning with Howard’s help. It was through this group that I got the opportunity to speak to David Preston’s Literature and Composition class — one of the best experiences I’ve had in education.

Site of the Year: Shut Your Fucking Face and Listen: My man Tim Baker and his band of ne’er do wells have put together a site that’s as hysterical as it is historical. Mostly focused on music, they veer off on pop culture tangents and mad rants that are always more entertaining than their subject matter. Get up on that.

TV Show of the Year: Breaking Bad (AMC): I have Tim Baker from SYFFAL to thank for this one. This show doesn’t just rearrange the furniture in the standard TV drama’s livingroom, it tosses it on the lawn and sets it on fire. I’ve only made it through the first three seasons, but my guess is that by the end of the recently inked fifth and final, this will be hailed as one of the greatest shows ever to creatively corrupt the television medium.
Runners Up: Party Down (Starz); Lie to Me (Fox).

Movie of the Year: The Muppets (Disney): I haven’t laughed so consistently through a movie since maybe first seeing Doug Liman’s Go in the theater. It’s not flawless (maybe one too many metacomments and one too many eighties references), but it is downright entertaining from titles to credits. So good to see a chunk of your chlidhood revived so well.
Runner Up: Tree of Life (Plan B).

Video of the Year: “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator: Written, directed, produced, rapped, and eaten by Tyler himself. I’ve already spouted my feelings about OFWGKTA elsewhere.
Runners up: Pusha-T featuring Tyler, The Creator “Trouble on My Mind,” Big Sean featuring Chiddy Bang “Too Fake,” Hail Mary Mallon “Meter Feeder” (embedded above).

So those are a few of the things that caught and held my attention this year. What were yours?

Bring the Noise: Systems, Sound, and Silence

In our most tranquil dreams, “peace” is almost always accompanied by “quiet.” Noise annoys. From the slightest rattle or infinitesimal buzz to window-wracking roars and earth-shaking rumbles, we block it, muffle it, or drown it out whenever possible. It is ubiquitous. Try as we might, cacophony is everywhere, and we’re the cause in most cases. Keizer (2010) points out that, besides sleeping (for some of us), reading is ironically the quietest thing we do. “Written words were meant to evoke heard speech,” he writes, “and were considered inadequate until they did so, like tea leaves before the addition of hot water” (p. 21). Reading silently was subversive.

We often speak of noise referring to the opposite of information. In the canonical model of communication conceived in 1949 by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, which I’ve been trying to break away from, noise is anything in the system that disrupts the signal or the message being sent.

If you’ve ever tried to talk on a cellphone in a parking garage, find a non-country station on the radio in a fly-over state, or follow up on a trending topic on Twitter, then you know what this kind of noise looks like. Thanks to Shannon and Weaver (and their followers; e.g., Freidrich Kittler, among many others), it’s remained a mainstay of communication theory since, privileging machines over humans (see Parikka, 2011). Well before it was a theoretical metonymy, noise was characterized as “destruction, distortion, dirt, pollution, an aggression against the code-structuring messages” (Attali, 1985, p. 27). More literally, Attali conceives noise as pain, power, error, murder, trauma, and youth (among other things) untempered by language. Noise is wild beyond words.

The two definitions of noise discussed above — one referring to unwanted sounds and the other to the opposite of information — are mixed and mangled in Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (Zone Books, 2011), a book that rebelliously claims to have been written to be read aloud. Yet, he writes, “No mere artefacts of an outmoded oral culture, such oratorical, jurisprudence, pedagogical, managerial, and liturgical acts reflect how people live today, at heart, environed by talk shows, books on tape, televised preaching, cell phones, public address systems, elevator music, and traveling albums on CD, MP3, and iPod” (p. 43). We live not immersed in noise, but saturated by it. As Aden Evens put it, “To hear is to hear difference,” and noise is indecipherable sameness. But, one person’s music is another’s noise — and vice versa (Voegelin, 2010), and age and nostalgia can eventually turn one into the other. In spite of its considerable heft (over 900 pages), Making Noise does not see noise as music’s opposite, nor does it set out for a history of sound, stating that “‘unwanted sound’ resonates across fields. subject everywhere and everywhen to debate, contest, reversal, repetition: to history” (p. 23).

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
John Cage

The digital file might be infinitely repeatable, but that doesn’t make it infinite. Chirps in the channel, the remainders of incomplete communiqué surround our signals like so much decimal dust, data exhaust. In Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture (University of Minnesota, 2011), Peter Krapp finds these anomalies the sites of inspiration and innovation. My friend Dave Allen is fond of saying, “There’s nothing new in digital.” To that end, Krapp traces the etymology of the error in machine languages from analog anomalies in general, and the extremes of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (RCA, 1975) and Brian Eno‘s Discreet Music (EG, 1975) in particular, up through our current binary blips and bleeps, clicks and clacks — including Christian Marclay‘s multiple artistic forays and Cory Arcangel’s digital synesthesia. This book is about both forms of noise as well, paying due attention to the distortion of digital communication.

There is a place between voice and presence where information flows. — Rumi

Another one of my all-time favorite books on sound is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 2001). In his latest, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener (Continuum Books, 2010), he reinstates the human as an inhabitant on the planet of sound. He does this by analyzing the act of listening more than studying sound itself. His history of listening is largely comprised of fictional accounts, of myths and make-believe. Sound is a spectre. Our hearing is a haunting. From sounds of nature to psyops (though Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is “torture-lite” in any context), the medium is the mortal. File Sinister Resonance next to Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House, 2010) and Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare (MIT Press, 2010).

And how can we expect anyone to listen if we are using the same old voice? — Refused, “New Noise”

Life is loud, death is silent. Raise hell to heaven. Make a joyous noise unto all of the above.

———-

My thinking on this topic has greatly benefited from discussions with, and lectures and writings by my friend and colleague Josh Gunn.

References and Further Resonance:

Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Evens, A. (2005). Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Goodman, S. (2010). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Keizer, G. (2010). The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. Philadelphia, PA: Public Affairs.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance. In E. Huhtamo & J. Parikka (Eds.), Media Archeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Refused. (1998). “New Noise” [performed by Refused]. On The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts (Sound recording). Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

Schwartz, H. (2011). Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.

Shannon, C.E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tompkins, D. (2010). How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

Toop, D. (2010). Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum Books.

Voegelin, S. (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum Books.

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.