Table of Contents: Technology


Love Hulten

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When I look at these absolutely breathtaking handmade made-to-order objects by Swedish fabircator Love Hulten, I covet.

In fact I covet three ways. At first I covet crassly, wishing I could afford these hand turned masterpieces. Then a little more thoughtfully, I covet the skills & craft to build these kinds of things myself. Then, finally, I covet philosophically, wishing that this was a genuine commercial aesthetic — that as we chase the geewhiz we’d take the texture and soul of what worked before and roll it in as we roll foward. We’ve left so many beautiful things behind.

The Quintessence of Tempest

temp1

temp2

[RERUN: Hauling this out of the early days of the blog. I’ve been on a protracted vintage video game and pinball bender lately. Atari’s iPad port of my beloved Tempest is damn near perfect and I’ve been playing it a ton. As such this early appreciation of the stone cold perfection of this game has been on my mind. So, here, then…}

The screen graphics of the classic video game Tempest represent a kind of summit of design and beauty –  the finest expression of a very limited language. In the case of Tempest that language was vector based rendering. Vector monitors were used in video games from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s. The technology was derived from oscilloscopes – the image is projected by an electron beam onto the glass. Image a laser light show sped up to produce a lasting image and you’ve got it…

Many classic games were made using this technology – Asteroids and Battlezone as well as the first Star Wars game. While they all had their aesthetic charms, Tempest is in a class of its own. All vector games have a certain elegance and simplicity. The problem arises in the crudity of the renderings – the poor approximations of tanks, asteroids, and X-wings forever marks these games as primitive gestures of an evolving technology. Tempest is exempt because it is derived from the technology itself.  What would a world defined by glowing geometric unshaded lines look like? Pretty much like Tempest.

Its beauty lies in the fact that it is in harmony with its own rules and limits. Hence the extremely elegant compositions – uncrowded, with a well balanced sense of scale. The color scheme is vibrancy itself, strong underlying blues, wonderful pops of pink, green, red, and yellow. And the physics of the electron beams give everything a deep saturated glow.

That same harmony extends to playing the game as well. Most games rely on clumsy and stunted translations of real world movements like running, jumping or flying an ostrich. Tempest moves in accordance with its nature – spinning and firing. That’s what makes it so satisfying. Once you understand its strange parameters you have a complete experience on its terms – a dynamic, I think, that is fundamental to the idea of art.

Basics

lamp

from How Things Work, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Technology,
Simon and Schuster, 1967 | German edition, Wie Funktioniert Das?, Institut AG, 1963

The stars, my destination…

Amazing! So much purposeful human striving packed into one single frame – the bustling boogie woogie rhythms of daily life…

A fitting intersection, then, for our beloved space shuttle to cross – born of and built by the same energy and industry that powers the streets below. It’s endearing how much affection that ungainly piggyback elicits. The future was not the sleek finned swooped darts envisioned by Alex Raymond or Chesley Bonestell. The future was function begetting form – a spacecraft that looks as it must, to do what it needs to do, more Jeep than Jaguar.

Guided by technology contemporaneous with Centipede, Donkey Kong & Tempest, it broadened the perimeter of our everyday reach out into the edge of space. Because that’s the thing about the shuttle missions… they weren’t shots into the unknown, like Sir Richard Burton setting off to find the source of the Nile, or the Apollo Missions to the moon. They were meant to explore and colonize a frontier, like prospectors setting out westward to California to pan for gold, bend the direction of rivers, to make rockets and movies in the desert.

It’s why the spirit of Hedy Lamarr floats above this scene like a patron saint – a gifted, glamorous actress who, in her spare time, invented new kind of guidance system for torpedos to better fight the Nazis.

This photograph is a profound hymn to Los Angeles and the idea of California. Los Angeles will always be the most American of cities, defined by the lure of ambition and the blank canvas of possibility rather than the grids of Paris or London. Where hidden in the anonymity of deserts and stripmalls someone is manipulating the genome, making planes invisible, or writing Tootie’s dialog for an upcoming episode of Yo Gabba Gabba.

It’s where a young Gene Roddenberry would begin to write a series of TV scripts that used science fiction as a vehicle not only to boldly go where no man had gone before, but to explore the frontiers of the human condition – to muse on love, faith, friendship, and art.

It is no accident that the first space shuttle was called The Enterprise.

[Photograph by Stephen C. Confer]

For you to sleep well at night…

We just wanted to build the best thing we could build. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

– Steve Jobs, Playboy Interview, 1985

Insanely Great

Steve Jobs changed my life three times. In 1982 the Apple II was the tractor beam (along with D&D) that pulled me into my first encounter with counterculture – the edges of the assembly language writing, phone-phreaking, copy protection cracking, dip switch flicking homebrew computer scene. It was the first time I really discovered something covert in culture. It was electric.

In 1985 I went for a routine visit to the Computer Connection outside of Albany, NY. There I saw a strange looking beige appliance looking thing. I remember, vividly, seeing a “folder” dragged into the “trash” with a “mouse.” And MacPaint. The Macintosh was the tool I would end up making my living on over the past 18 years.

My affection for older household appliances and everyday objects comes from the fact that I genuinely think they were far more attractive back then. You could sense aesthetics as a fundamental part of their design. They were also, in many cases, incredibly well manufactured. Nowadays, Apple’s products are among the few heirs to that tradition. I use them everyday to work, to read, to talk to people, to listen to music, to relax, and to look up how Nigella Lawson would make scampi with anchovies.

It’s woven up in who I am, what I do and how I live. Thanks Steve.

Perception

All languages contain terms for white and black. If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red. If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both). If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow. If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue. If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown. If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains a term for purple, pink, orange, gray, or some combination of these.

Berlin & Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, 1969
Illust: Antique color wheel; Color Chart, Gerhard Richter

Streamlined Irons

These irons are a sampling of the Streamlined Irons exhibit, currently installed between Terminals C and D of the Philadelphia International Airport.

Manufactured between the 1930s and 40’s the irons are from the collection of Jay Raymond, who has studied them since the 1980s. In 2008 he published Streamlined Irons, a survey and assessment of the design, manufacture, and cultural significance of these little marvels. More info on the book, which is spectacularly designed and photographed, and Raymond himself, here. Info on the exhibit here.

Vroom, vroom, ratatat-tat!!!

Some up-close 35mm shots I took recently of some miniature plane dioramas at the The Empire State Aerosciences Museum in Schenectady, New York. I love how painterly and gently surreal they appear. Larger versions here, and here. (And a heartfelt huzzah to the museum itself, a true labor of love that overcomes modest resources to create a genuinely engaging experience.)

The Malware Saga

Ok. That totally sucked. Here’s the skinny. The site got hacked early this week. Infected with bad code, malware, general hacker obnoxiousness. So the site was chloroformed, quarantined, and branded an “attack site” by Google… arrgh! A few frantic days later, with considerable help from my superb hosting service, pair.com, the WordPress community, and after a total reinstall of the blog, it’s all sorted. phew… Google has released the blog back into the general population…

The whole experience was galvanizing. First off, for anyone with any kind of a Internet presence – seriouslyget to know the details of your security, and make sure it’s tight. Slightly paranoid geek tight, not 70’s suburban bicycle chain tight. The weird thing, though, was dealing with Google. !#@!$@! It underscored how much power they have over our online lives and I’ll tell you, it was disconcerting. I’m going to post on this aspect of the magilla in a few days once I have my thoughts together, but it had a real Soviet Logan’s Run Smiling Robot Takeover Westworld kinda feeling… more soon.

Welcome back.

Slide Rules




A couple of things here… The design of the gizmo itself has some unusually jazzy touches – The in-line rule and orange drop-shadow of OHMITE. The name OHMITE – so silver age Marvel Comics, the Jack Kirby renderings basically draw themselves. The gutsy outline type of OHMITE MANUFACTURING COMPANY. The Bodoni-ish fat numbers.

It’s just rad to see such a brawny and practical tool have so much swing and style. And the numerical card is sublime… just marvel for a moment at how something so thoroughly determined by accuracy and rigor can pulse with such deft, complex rhythms and hum with such simple grace.

The Seventies-ness-ness of the Apple //

Recently I had to decide whether to discard my Apple //e, and found I absolutely couldn’t bear to part with it. Rather, I pulled its disparate components off storage shelves and out of boxes, dusted them off and reassembled it. Something about reconstituting it made me bond with it all over again… Then, just the other night, snowed in by a blizzard, I was watching Royal Tennenbaums for the nth time and noticed among all the other 70s bric-a-brac, an Apple //.

I know it’s playing footsie with the obvious, but it’s worth remembering what an essential artifact of 70’s design the Apple // really is.  Its introductory advert from 1977 captures that perfectly. Look at the context… It’s not set up in an office but on the wood table of a modern kitchen. It’s not stacked like a Hi-Fi system or a fused one-piece like an ordinary computer terminal. It’s spread out like a split level contemporary house. The severe contrasting angles of the case evoke 70’s architecture and furniture design much more than anything especially technological. (It shares this look with some of the better designed calculators of the period – which makes sense, given they first embodied the notion of a computer as a home appliance) The distinct beige putty color leans in nicely against the saturated, plush colors of the era – the ochres, purples, oranges and red browns. In short, the Apple // represents the hight of then-contemporary suburban design – which is why it looks just at home in the Wes Anderson’s idealized 70’s diorama as Bill Murray’s purple turtleneck and burnt sienna blazer.

Ex Libris Taras Shepelavy, Pt. 2

I sincerely hope that author Maurice L Hartung of the University of Chicago was as impressed as I was with the cover designs to his slide rule manuals. (Also, belated congratulations to Dr. Hartung on the promotion he seems to have received between the publication of the guides.)

Image Compression Standards

lena

This is a crop of a photo of Lena Söderberg, the centerfold of the November 1972 issue of Playboy. In 1973, engineers at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute used it as a test image in their research. The data they collected from the image, specifically the red, green, blue color channel data, have become the standard benchmark for image compression quality ever since. That research also built the foundation for the image compression algorithms used in JPG and MP3s. It adds, I think, a nice resonance to know that the quality of much of what we listen to and see online is tuned to this fetching image. (two great geeky observations and articles on Lena here and here)