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Archive for the month “October, 2012”

All Hallows’ Evening

Quick thought today:

If  philosopher and psychologist William James’ 1895 idea of multiverses [since loved by Sci-Fi writers and indeed quantum physicists ] is correct, that would mean there is possibly somewhere a never-ending Halloween eve where poor Laurie Strode is running backwards and forwards in a certain Haddonfield street trying to get some attention from disinterested neighbours  [thinking her screams are just a Trick or Treat prank] whilst jangly electronic music plays and a tall figure in a blanked William Shatner mask unfalteringly advances in the shadows.

click to visit interactive Halloween Google Doodle

In my opinion John Carpernter’s 1978 film Halloween was one of the last ‘great’ movies to use the old ‘false startle’ or ‘tap-on-the-shoulder routine’ in which the ‘monster’ lunges into our field of vision or creeps up on a person.

pedestrians scrambled

Perhaps it was the bold red/black zigzags of the Red Room of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks in the previous post, or seeing the newly painted bright whites of my local Zebra Crossing [but only the half of the road that had been recently dug up – most bizarre] but I got to thinking about the history of road crossings: Zebras, Pelicans, Puffins, Tigers, Toucans, Pegasus’ [in the UK at least].

I have always been fascinated by the Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble Crossing in Tokyo, Japan, as seen deliciously empty at the start of the movie Resident Evil: Afterlife for instance [the UK has only had a handful installed in London, and only in the last 5 years]. As well as the concept of ‘jaywalking’ which although common in North America, doesn’t exist in the UK.

But most interesting is the different ‘tunes’ played at controlled crossings. Particularly the haunting refrains that until recently could be heard in most Japanese cities [I first learnt of these watching Beyond one of the Animatrix animated shorts in 2001]. I can’t help but wonder how these ‘funereal ditties’ affect the speed of pedestrian traversal? For a sound designer, working out the correct tempo must be trickier than one imagines. For instance I was always rather confused by the “WALK”, “DON’T WALK” messages from a street crossing in the Zhora chase scene of the movie Blade Runner,  simply as the intonation and pace seemed to be exactly the same [whereas one would assume that as different as possible soundscapes would most help those that need them, i.e. the unsighted, to be able to differentiate between crossing phases].

Though thinking about it more carefully I have to admit I hadn’t noticed until recently that many crossing are nowadays mute. I guess increasing levels of background noise in cities has made their formerly comforting safety bleeps superfluous? Strange to think that in a few years pedestrians might be as clueless as to how to cross a road as they were 60 years ago.

damn fine cup of coffee

A couple of months back, the online magazine The Millions completed a three year search to find the ten most difficult books [in English] to read:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes;
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift;
The Phenomenology of Spirit by GF Hegel;
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf;
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson;
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce;
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger;
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser;
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein;
Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.

As primarily a fiction writer I’m obviously more interested in the works of fiction than the philosophical tracts. I can’t help wondering though how they came to this list given their brief

books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction

[strangely not mentioned; needing ‘expert’ knowledge – Foucault’s Pendulum, say] Also surely there seems to be many glaring omissions: The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard; much by Burroughs, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet [has been translated], for starters.

I’m to this day surprised at the success of  the 1990 TV serial Twin Peaks . Presumably one reason is that there were far fewer channels back then? Another  certainly is that it somehow managed to gather an ‘aura of cool’. But fads are almost impossible to predict.

What I’d be really interested to know is ‘What are the Top 10 all-time most popular/Best Seller ‘difficult books’? From this one might be able to ascertain just how far it is possible to ‘push’ fiction whilst still remaining accessible to more than just a select few [not that there is anything wrong with that necessarily].

Hydriotaphia

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819, John Keats

Churning around the Capital, as is my wont from time to time, I snapped this all too easily seen as just decorative, twiddly-bit ornamentation in South West London [in fact there were two, one either side of the gateway]. I think what caught my eye was the juxtaposition of the square aspect wrought iron scrollwork, the topiary corkscrews, and this fairly large gatepost finial amid the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the windows [with the dark brickwork cross so made between].

Of course, being an architecture and street furniture fan, I have seen this type of feature thousands of times before. However it was only today that its full peculiarity hit me.

urn. Lidded ovaloid vase on a circular plan used in Classical Antiquity to contain cremated remains. It was a form later revived for purposes of architectural decoration, on balustrade pedestals, set in niches, or used as garden-ornaments.

So the grandiose ostentations on the frontages of many abodes are essentially funereal in nature. When and why did this fashion arise? I can only assume during the mid 18th Century Neoclassical period of Architecture, heralded by the discoveries being made from the 1740’s onward of ancient Roman antiquities. For the wealthier classes anyway [visions of architectural urns outside mansions as containing the ashes of faithful footmen, ladies in waiting, and favourite hounds] as led by the Style of the Brothers Adam. And then again later for the more middle-class upon the classical revival in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras [visions of more modest sized urns filled with the ashes of scullery maids and nannies].

But why? Were they in a more religious age seen as an act of piety? In times of higher/earlier mortality some form of memento mori? Or simply an expression of taste [keeping up with the Whittington-Smythes]?

I assume the parts of a decorative urn have names – foot/pedestal/neck/lid? and an expert could date examples by the type of vegetation used to cover the base [much like columns] or the fluting on the body for instance.

Seen this way London is certainly one giant dissipated Columbarium inside an even larger Mortopolis.

Here is a copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s 1658 Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall

Knight Lore tickles

So, thoughts of my past wind-ups collection has obviously set my mind on other past toys/games [though I love all things mechanical, especially automata, of which wind-ups are arguably younger junior partners, strangely I’ve never before made the connection with the figures you control in computer games – which often also seem to have a life of their own] and perhaps it being nearly Halloween my subconscious has turned specifically to an early Spectrum isometric platformer [a sub-genre of both 3D and 2D platformers where a three dimensional environment using two dimensional graphics is presented via isometric projection] I used to spend hours playing back as a kid in the mid 80’s – Knight Lore.

The title really was quite revolutionary for the time. I’m not sure what grabbed me the most about the game, its great clean line monochrome 3D feel graphics or its shear playability. Though the puzzles were not on the whole mega-difficult [though some were seemingly impossible] merely requiring good timing and joystick dexterity, much thought had obviously gone into the gameplay.

Cleverly constructed around one-at-a-time room environments, meaning you either didn’t know what was in the next room [perhaps certain death if you stepped into the room too quickly – indeed there was always a room I could never get into] or had forgotten [there being so many rooms that looked very similar] the route you had taken, the game map was essentially a maze. A maze of numerous dead ends that had you retracing your steps and therefore infuriatingly having to re-solve exactly the puzzles you had just struggled to overcome, but in reverse. Essentially the mission was to collect several requested objects and bring them back to a central location, but, your start position each game and the objects’ locations were randomly changed from game to game [and you had to remember exactly which ones you’d been requested to collect – many a laugh to be had from painstakingly travelling all the way out and back to find you’d brought back the wrong object!]

To add to the fun not only could you move around and use/step on some objects such as tables or the objects you had collected, to get across puzzles, but some platforms disappeared when you stepped on them [making them ‘one time only’, even if you escaped death – you then had to go out the room to reset the puzzle]. All whilst against an overall ticking down game clock [only 40 game days to complete the whole adventure] and a day/night clock that saw your character turn into a werewulf, when your otherwise carefully avoided ‘enemies’ automatically came after you [one touch meant instant death].

I’m certain that part of the appeal was also the dodgy/easily worn out technology of the time [it was a completely different experience playing via keyboard]. Malfunctioning ‘jittery’ joysticks causing twitches in movement and therefore character death, led to no end of crazed laughter. [It always seemed to happen when you were about to get a high score/solve a puzzle for the first time/were on your last life but just about to win an extra one].

What still astounds is not only was such gameplay mesmerism possible with only 48K of computer memory [the dreaded ‘Speccy-tape‘ 5 minute mis-load is another world of cringe-worthy laughter. I imagine that I still dream in Spectrum datastream noise] but that such simple but sophisticated graphics had us spellbound not only for hours on end [an evening of gaming] but for months at a time [every friday night throughout the Winter]. The game is best described as being like a bout of tickles – you want it to go on but you want it to stop.

I am delighted to have found this site with a compete room map, which might after all these years allow me to discover what was in that room.

If you want to try out some retrogaming, find an emulator here.

conspicuous non-consumption

So okay I admit it, window shopping/browsing stores used to be a weekend hobby! But I haven’t been a ‘real’ consumer for around ten years now [preferring the more interesting finds to be had at car-boot sales and in charity/junk shops] and must therefore be on the verge of being ‘sacked’ from the 21st Century [Not that I’m too gloomy at the prospect. To my mind ‘consumption’ is still the term for the terminal phase of tuberculosis].

Fellow citizens! The time is now to consume. Why skimp, when you deserve more? Fellow citizens! Do your part, and make waste. Life is easier when you lighten the load. Fellow citizens! The time is…

Ergo proxy, anime television series, Manglobe, 2006

Shopping online is great for things that you know you already want/need [for price comparison] but pretty useless for making  ‘surprising discoveries’. The problem I find, having wide ranging interests and eclectic tastes, is that the ‘recommendation’ engines of most retailers are frankly ineffectual. Just because I buy a book about Celtic knot designs doesn’t mean I want another ten books on the same subject. Just because I buy the excellent Rubik’s Revenge 5×5 puzzle doesn’t mean I also want all the naff Rubik’s cube spin offs. Just because I buy a quirky film by a certain director doesn’t mean I also want all his mediocre mainstream trash.

Take me to your leader aka your personal shopper

I went into my local WHSmith yesterday [first time in years] and was shocked at how down at heel it was! [faded sticky nightclub carpet / end of line bargain buckets] I used to spend hours here in the 1990’s before the internet really took off, eagerly reading computer mag games’ walkthroughs for Tombraider and Resident Evil, etc. and thumbing the book titles.  Of course the store used to be a major seller of books then, whereas now the titles seem restricted to crossover/tie ins [Lego Batman/Star Wars/Harry Potter] and trashy nonebrity biographies and long past their sell-by date ripoffs [101 uses of a dead kindle – oh please] All the ‘young adult’ books looked exactly the same [black spines – teenage angst?  – big title lettering]. The whole product range seemed a bit ‘franchise’ to me [a la Alien, .., Aliens IV, Aliens vs Predator, Aliens meet the Fockers, Aliens go to the seaside and make sandcastles then go home for a nice cup of tea and a nap, etc] and this malaise doesn’t seem restricted to this outlet/retailer.

Where are all the exciting products? In your local £1 shop! Yes! I expect this may be due to cheaper items meaning more risk taking is possible? Or more ‘strange’ items are stocked to grab your attention? [I will share some £1 ‘object d’art’ finds in future tongue-in-cheek posts category, ‘gems of the future’]. It seems in several millennia we have gone from being hunters and gatherers to wannabe trending coolhunters.

I’ve always loved George A. Romero’s classic 1978 social commentary horror movie Dawn of the Dead [there’s nothing creepier than a dead mall – as this art imitating life imitating art article so freakily demonstrates].

“Why do they come here?”

“Instinct? This used to be an important place in their lives.”

Still I mustn’t grumble. From the WHSmith end-of-line bargain bin I picked up a cute little plastic wind-up toy [I used to collect these years ago – had over 300 at one point] eggbot, who’s head/arms/accessories are interchangeable with his seven siblings. Now that’s imaginative. Maybe all is not yet lost?

Here’s an important document from 1964 by philosopher Herbert Marcuse, which offers a wide-ranging critique of contemporary capitalism.

23 skedaddle

Up! Down! Flying around. Looping the loop and defying the ground

Those magnificent men in their flying machines, Soundtrack, 1965, Ron Goodwin.

Tuesday evening I watched [or more accurately re23-watched – i.e. easily seen at least twenty three times since 1991] Dimension Jump [the twenty-third episode in the series run overall] of the science fiction sit-com Red Dwarf. I was struck by the scene where the boys, their spacecraft [non-air craft] on collision course with another, are scrambling around looking for the ‘crash procedure cards’. “It should be in the netting behind the seats. Haven’t we got to sit behind a woman clutching a baby?”

This got me to thinking 1) Why is the air-crash so often a theme for humour? [think the really funny scene in the movie Airplane where the Captain’s announcement “to adopt crash positions” results in the passengers calculatedly taking up postures of broken limbs, sprawled all over the floor and seats and each other, even though the flight is currently as normal]. 2) The impossibility of creating a universal/culturally independent signage system and therefore the often unintentional humour inherent in aircraft safety cards.

Presumably the answer to the first thought is not to be found in the chances of death resulting from aeroplane use, [as air-transport is statistically one of the safest ways to travel] and hence an inflated sense of gallows humour. Arguably it results from a “if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings” instinctive knowledge of how absolutely ‘peculiar’ the notion of flight is [for non-winged humans at least]. Afterall it is only a mere two hundred years since the first passengers of Stephenson’s Rocket believed that speeds much in excess of  20 mph would result in death.

An outcome and condition which aircraft safety instruction cards obviously try their hardest to distance from your mind.

I study the people on the laminated airline seat card … people calm as Hindu cows reach up from their seats toward oxygen masks sprung out of the ceiling. This must be an emergency.

Chuck PalahniukFight Club

Though the graphic representations [cross-cultural studies have determined that people prefer illustrations instead of photographs, presumably as that way there is a certain ‘neutrality’ to the chaos of the depicted event] necessary for accessibility [to those speaking a different language, children and the illiterate] make these cards works of imagination and therefore prone to ‘mistakes’, which can all to readily be interpreted as humorous [if not downright ‘scary’, as in the AeroMexico safety card (part of shown above) where the man though otherwise realistic, has no face!] even without the need for satirical input.

NB

This article, posted 25th – written 24th – inspired by thoughts on 23rd. The train/aeroplane of thoughts was inspired by the Apophenian coincidences surrounding its birth, and knowledge of the contribution of an airplane disaster in the creation of the 23 enigma.

Sleight of eye

After yesterday’s post I got to thinking there was at least one more really interesting way of looking at Magritte’s Golconde image: that the figures are attached to the ‘background’ [however you wish to interpret that concept] by long fine supports, which running in the same direction of your line of sight, remain invisible from your point of view. Much the same way in which Magicians levitate women.

I then recalled some research I did a couple of years back for a novel close only counts, that has so far not got past the planning stages, featuring South Seas locales, a cruiseship voyage, Zeppelins, tincan mail, a total eclipse of the Sun, Tijuana bibles, 1930’s spies, etc, etc all set to a structurally constrained but highly fractured plot line. Delving into the history of early 20th Century postcards, especially those made directly from early photographs, I was [as a very modestly skilled practitioner] intrigued to find out about the history of juggling in Tonga, and a photo-postcard example of three lovely ladies, one ‘showering‘ 8 oranges.

Something to my mind didn’t seem quite right however [even though I learnt the ladies of Tonga were highly accomplished jugglers], but I was unable to put my finger on it, even when later I happened across another, slightly different version of the photograph clearly taken during the same session. Only much later after extensive internet searching did I discover the root of my concerns when I found a third version. The balls were exactly in the same place in each photograph! Clearly the photographer [whom I later discovered was Thomas Andrew] had staged the whole affair. The most likely method it would seem was exactly the same method used by magicians to levitate ladies rather than oranges, i.e. connecting the ‘spheres’ by rods through the backdrop, which being perpendicular to the picture plane remained invisible to the camera.

Interestingly some major museums that hold the glass plate photographs have them catalogued as ‘juggling’, presumably not realising the subterfuge?

The Plausible Impossible

A thought stuck in my head from a blog comment last week about Baumgartner’s parachute jump, “What if he’d stepped out of the capsule and had gone UP!” Obviously impossible as at only 24 miles up he was nowhere near Space [despite many reports stating ‘edge of Space’] and a lack of Earth gravity [and this is not the expected behaviour even if he had been]. But the comment made me recall Bob Shaw‘s excellent 1980’s Land and Overland science fantasy trilogy of novels where the population of one planet journey to another which shares its atmosphere via hot-air balloons [though impossible due to the Laws of Physics imposed in our universe]. This then made me think about the ingenuity and plausibility of Cartoon Physics.

I remember reading about ‘selective rearing’ experiments from the early 1970’s where animals were born and raised in ‘artificial’ conditions [kittens in environments with only curves] and the problems in perception this caused if their surrounding were then changed [the kittens kept bumping into anything with vertical upright lines, as they couldn’t ‘see’ them.]

It seems to me that the success of Cartoon Physics, much like the best Surrealist art, is that it has an internal logic which not only remains consistent but is similar to real world Physics but with an interesting ‘twist’, i.e. it upsets our perception in an unexpected though plausible way. I am always disappointed for instance to read of Magritte’s painting Golconde as depicting ‘raining men’ [perhaps due to the men wearing overcoats?] as this is the most obvious way of viewing the scene. Why equally could they not be levitating or engaged in synchronized trampolining or merely hovering?

Of course ultimately the main aim of Cartoon Physics, much like slapstick with which animation shares many features, and other types of humour, is to deliver a ‘witty’ punchline. So in words attributed to Art Babbitt, an animator with the Walt Disney Studios, “Animation follows the laws of physics – unless it is funnier otherwise.”

Mindworms

There is only one thing worse for a writer than suffering  a ‘Kubla Khan moment [the 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem Kubla Khan: or a vision in a dream, remains incomplete at 54 lines as the poet was unable to recall the rest of the composition after allegedly being interrupted whilst trying to copy down his vision from an opium induced haze] and that is the related condition of being attacked by a mindworm.

a still from the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

The condition is a combination of the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon and having a song stuck playing in your head [haunting melody] all day for no apparent reason.

Usually I find Mindworms come fully formed and unbidden. My suffer-age of the last few weeks

Her pupils, bird-pecks under her bottle-top glasses.

I know nothing more about the character than her visual ailment. I know nothing more about the narrative in which she dwells than it is possibly quite ‘horrorshow’, [‘bird-pecks’ seemingly a darker image than the military slang for deep set eyes, ‘piss-holes in the snow’] as the strongly visual line with its open-ended poetry unfortunately so far refuses to divulge its secrets.

I half remember reading years ago about Winston Churchill [who always had a notepad by his bed in case he awoke and wanted to jot something down] writing something during a brief awakening that he was certain was the meaning of the universe. Later he found the poetic sounding but ultimately ‘trivial’ phrase

The Whole Pervades with the Odour of Camphor.

The problem with such snippets of course [apart from driving you nuts] is you are always fearful that they are simply parts of extant text from another writer that you can’t place. I recall once haranguing friends with the line ‘daws peaking at her hands’ from a poem read many years before, who’s imagery had obviously effected me, and that I believed was set around the bombings of Dresden during WWII. After much research it turned out to be a slight mis-remembrance of Five Minutes after the Air Raid, by Miroslav Holub, and the line was actually ‘sparrows pecking at her hands’ [which for a long time after annoyed me, as I thought the daws imagery was much stronger]. Though the problem with poetry in translation is naturally the translation [a recent version has ‘Sparrows pecked from her hands’, which I think is hugely weaker. And indeed changes completely one of the main themes of the piece].

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