Semantic, a big big love

August 24, 2007

As digital environments grow in sophistication and scope I sense a complementary resurgence of interest in our natural environments as well. Yet ironically features of rampant biodiversity that once survived in tandem with humanity now survive largely in spite of it; many such systems are joining an ever-longer queue to stand in topographic isolation, victims of profligate waste, consumerism or cultivated mono-agricultures. As one example: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 6,000 varieties of apple trees have been lost since 1900.” To that end, I feel as though any time we can better understand even a fraction of a natural holistic system then we are closer to holding such losses at bay.

There is an unspoken positive side to over-saturation with media, a learning curve that accompanies the environment of selectivity afforded to all of us through technology. For me it comes down several key concepts: organized selectivity, interoperability, a simple design/interface, and ideally uses open-source coding/is free for users to alter. It can be as simple as the Site Search feature that Gigablast offers through its web search interface, where anyone can create a web search box for a blog or site that limits itself to a select pool of (up to) 200 web pages or files, potentially offering greater depth and authority to a guided web search. Or it can be as complex as Google Earth, where a free download allows anyone to view satellite images of any location worldwide

Organization continues to be difficult to achieve, and the reasons for this are stupefying in their complexity. Perhaps the simplest expression of these problems is the lack of a standard for archival and descriptive metadata. And that doesn’t even cover the problems associated with search terms themselves, where a search for buddha can summon results which encompass religion, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Osamu Tezuka, films such as Little Buddha, Buddha, or The Light of Asia, Herman Hesse, marijuana, Buddha Bar, meditation, Buddha-Heads, amulets, university and college curricula, etc etc etc.

Many of you probably already know I am referring in part to what Tim Berners-Lee called the Semantic Web. Numerous start-ups and seasoned web veterans are fast at work on developing protocols for just such a machine readable global database. In fact, this year there already are or will be several beta versions from hopeful Semantic Web wranglers; Radar Networks, TextDigger, Theseus in Germany and many many others. W3C has a dedicated Semantic Web Activity News blog that is worth subscribing to just for its window into the official side of things, with technical specs, links to rules for interoperability and notes on large-scale projects.

There is an article in the August 2007 issue of MIT’s Technology Review that inspired these thoughts, seemingly written for a budding librarian obsessed with modern systems of digital and material archiving. Second Earth by Wade Roush is essentially a current assessment of the ways in which we are realizing the Metaverse described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, or rather the Mirror Worlds hypothesized by David Gerlenter in his eponymous book of 1991. He traces the development of both Linden Lab’s Second Life as well as the wildly popular application Google Earth, and imagines the impact of viable synthesis of the two digital exo-systems.

Imagining an environment that truly simulates the Earth is far easier than realizing it. The estimated computational load alone would necessitate the dedication of, say, the surface of the moon to such a project. As Roush notes, “At one region [65,536-square-meter chunk of topographic architecture] per server, simulating just the 29.2 percent of the planet’s surface that’s dry land would require 2.5 billion servers and 150 dedicated nuclear power plants to keep them running. It’s the kind of system that doesn’t ‘scale well’.”

Regional weather tracking is one enticing reality, as is‘s 3-D flight tracking digital transparency for use with Google Earth. Cyber-tourism is also an intriguing possibility, helping to reduce environmental damage to fragile or endangered locations much in the way that digitization of medieval manuscripts has already done. Some cities are realizing this and Amsterdam for one has provided architectural specifications to Second Life to make visitor’s trips more realistic; Germany supplied plans and images for Berlin’s Reichstag building which now can be visited in exceptional detail by Second Lifers.

“It’s the wiring of the entire world, without the wires: tiny radio-connected sensor chips are being attached to everything worth monitoring, including bridges, ventilation systems, light fixtures, mousetraps, shipping pallets, battlefield equipment, even the human body” Even knee surgery is being improved by such sensors; three micro-sensors are inserted about the knee and GPS triangulation helps the surgeon to avoid unnecessary incisions and invasive exploration, reducing both the number of surgeries (which can be many for a knee) and an outpatient’s convalescence.

When I can ignore my skepticism and paranoia I am enchanted by the possibilities, and a small measure of my hope for humanity is restored.  As I said, I have faith in the Big Picture, and the more respect for co-dependent systems we have the closer we come to achieving a sound balance. A friend recently alerted me to Worldmapper, and their beautiful cartographic treasures seem aligned with the emerging Mirror World and with improved Semantic Web capabilities.

Through 366 world maps you are given an idiot’s guide to various global statistics, just by varying the size of geographical regions to reflect raw numbers. For example:

Want to see where people watch the most films?


How about what regions import the most fish and fish products?


Or how about regions with the most forest depletion?


It’s unbelievable, the hypnotic range of cartograms you can find on this site, each with a detailed explanation, citations and even downloadable .pdfs for you to print out and use in any way you wish. Maps about cocoa, disease, disasters, housing, trade, food, health services, literacy, labor, maternity, migrants, sanitation…

It just blows me away each day what one can find on the web, offered free and clear to the known universe.


As I stand before the mirror

August 21, 2007

Here is a sampling of what I discovered about myself today:

You are Bettie Page

Girl next door with a wild streak
You’re a famous beauty – with unique look
And the people like you are cultish about it

What Famous Pinup Are You?

You are an elitist bastard. You hate people that try too hard, actually you just hate people in general. You have excellent taste in alcohol, however, and probably have an excellent collection of classical and experimental music.

What kind of goth are you?
Created by ptocheia

You Should Learn French

C’est super! You appreciate the finer things in life… wine, art, cheese, love affairs.
You are definitely a Parisian at heart. You just need your tongue to catch up…

What Language Should You Learn?

What Type of Librarian Are You?

You are Mary, from “Party Girl.”
Take this quiz!

You Communicate Like a Woman

You empathize, talk things out, and express your emotions freely.
You’re a good listener, and you’re non-judgmental with your advice.
Communication is how you connect with people.
You’re always up for a long talk, no matter how difficult the subject matter is.

Do You Communicate Like a Man or a Woman?

What Kind of Reader Are You?

Your Result: Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm



You’re probably in the final stages of a Ph.D. or otherwise finding a way to make your living out of reading. You are one of the literati. Other people’s grammatical mistakes make you insane.

Dedicated Reader



Book Snob



Literate Good Citizen



Fad Reader






What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz
What CLAMP School Detective Are You?Hosted by Anime. Done right.

All about Ingmar

You scored 6 out of a possible 10
Very good. The world would be a better place if the general populace was as clued up as you are about Ingmar Bergman’s films.
…and finally, most impressively of all,

What President are you?

Our 1st President, George Washington
Take this quiz!

p.s. One more day before classes are over!

Orphan Photography Archives

August 8, 2007

Photo 334 from Mirror World

People are so endlessly creative that the lost and found pile is certain to be equally large. I mentioned in an earlier post about the preservation of film that there are innumerable orphan films, more of these in fact than film with clear lines of provenance. Other times, the copyright on a work is intentionally left unclear, lost to time and memory, by the peculiar generosity of some talented individuals.

And sometimes you find something stuck to a wad of gum on the sidewalk, blown about in the wind until it catches on some barbed geegaw poking up, rusty & askew. Stuff like you’ll find at Found Magazine, or more narrowly at the magnificently stupid & addictive blog Passive Aggressive Notes, which archives passive-aggressive notes from roommates, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. (I need a scanner so I can send in a years-old note written on Kleenex tissue that was left on my car by a neighbor in a plastic bag weighted down by rocks…)

I wanted to highlight three collections today that archive photographic misfits & the public domain. Partly it’s a way to share my joy from finding the collections, but it’s also in honor & in deference to all of those whom I borrow from in assembling this floating futurist island Robotic Librarian.

Photo 220 from Mirror World

First up is Mirror World, which archives photos of unknown origin. There are some incredible treasures to be found here, true marvels of photography that seem as though they’ve lain dormant over centuries, spontaneously generated before the invention of tintypes, daguerreotypes and photograuvre. He currently hosts about 300 photos, and would like to know about any others if you might know of some. One caveat: there are a number of nudes, primarily of women, on this site. I’m not talking Hustler or Nugget-style photos; in fact there’s nothing that would be out of place in the Kinsey Institute Photography Collection. Merely a warning for those at work, or disinclined to view such things.

FBI Urgent Warning by OWI, ca. 1943, National Archive — PINGNews

Photojournalism is also a rich vein for sifting by magpies. Ping News on Flickr has assembled a massive collection of public domain photos of government origin. Split up into categories for Library of Congress, NARA, Photos and Posters from the New Deal Era, State Department and Related Agencies, Making History, DOD and related, NASA & space images and International Organizations, this is clearly a museum worth visiting.

From the Open Library scan of The Story of Jack and the Giants, ill by Richard Doyle

from The Story of Jack and the Giants,
London: Cundall & Addey 1851, ill. by Richard Doyle

Finally, there are numerous organizations attempting to assemble a global archive of lost and/or public domain materials. Finding these materials can be especially difficult, since it’s impossible to know how to find a lost collection if you don’t know it exists. The Internet Archive is “building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” Luckily for us, “like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.” In an interesting update, which will likely have antecedents I am unaware of, and will likely influence every other state in the union, “the Internet Archive is now officially a library according to the State of California!” as of 25 June, 2007. I know this isn’t, strictly speaking, a photography archive, but the spirit is the same. And book scanners are glorified high-resolution cameras, for traditional scanning equipment is just too slow as I understand it.

Anybody out there in Library-land know more about this library-status precedent for an online collection? Is it a precedent? Please enjoy and patronize today’s collection, and if you know of anything of substance that I missed, please do let me know.

The Electro-Map Menagerie → Photo Graphic

July 25, 2007

You may already know about Flickr, the wonderful online photographic scrapbook that people are updating from all corners of the globe. But have you seen David Troy’s Flickrvision?

I first came across an application like this through WFMU, my vote for one of the modern Wonders of the World. During their last fund-raising marathon, enterprising DJ KenzoDB created the Marathon Map using Google Maps technology with a bit of TerraMetrics, NASA and Europa Technologies as well. This ingenious little application would track pledges from around the globe and highlight them real time, as well as make space for commentary if the generous soul wished to say something to the WFMU community at large. As I monitored their progress each day to make sure they reached the year’s fund-raising goal (which they did, yay!) I also checked in to see who was pledging and from where. Perhaps not quite a pan-continental phenomenon, they did manage to score pledges from I believe four continents. A nifty trick.

Well, Flickrvision does the idea one better. It tracks the most recently uploaded photography from around the world and pinpoints its origin for you while showing you a snapshot portrait of the fresh-from-the-oven content. I could watch it for hours….bowling in China, a Korea-Canadian baby, a dog from Seattle and…that’s weird, a note to “The Rotten Thief Who Cleaned Out Our Bank Account.” I didn’t know people photographed word documents to post on Flickr but there you go. I hope they find the culprit, that’s sad.

I don’t think I have anything to say after that.

Tomorrow, a visit to Les Cites Obscures.

The Electro-Map Menagerie → prologue

July 22, 2007

This week I would like to highlight inventive cartography, impossible visions made real through digital technology. I am a big fan of Katharine Harmon’s book You Are Here: personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. In her book she details beautiful examples of abstractly representative map making, or maps interested in showing systems of relationships not geographic in nature. Her collection is great, worthy of a place in any personal library, but sadly for us it is bound by ink and by paper. This week, I hope to bring you a sampler of works available only to an electrified world.

In order to inaugurate this series, however, I will start with a traditional form of imaginative map; click for a readable view.

New York Subway Map of the Internet, all rights reserved

You can visit the original Flickr page here.

This one, supplied by Orli Yakuel, is (inaccurately) called the New York Subway Map of the Internet. It’s actually a modified Tokyo map, but who’s counting? Either way, Orli’s map is a good entry point into this weeks’ upcoming Electro-Map Menagerie, hearkening all the way back to Simon Patterson’s 1992 London Underground mash-up The Great Bear.

Come ride with me the tubes of the Internet, and in so doing we shall visit fantastical realms of uncertain geography.

Luxury to Read

July 14, 2007

Flying can be nerve-wracking for someone like me who doesn’t really like to fly. I think it’s being so far from the ground, rather than any nausea or fear of aeroplane safety, that rubs grit into the animal fear center of my brain as assiduously as a penitent with a worry stone. There are more geometries to be worried about in a plane, as opposed to an earth-bound accident. Irrational, I know, but persuasive.

A great pleasure of flying for me though is reading. Being forced to inhabit isolated pockets of time like that, where my normal penumbral distractions and responsibilities have no power, can be such a godsend. There is a wonderful little story by Isaac Asimov that I read when I was 16 or so which explains a bit of the pleasure of such isolated pockets of time. It’s part of his short story collection Azazel.


Azazel is a loosely connected cycle of stories based around the eponymous Biblical Demon, a mischievous little imp who grants the spoken and unspoken wishes of a gentleman named George. All of these wishes are taken quite literally, and predictably all of George’s best laid plans go awry. Unfortunately I cannot remember the title of the story I am reminded of, but the gist is this:

George’s writer friend complains to him that he is sick of waiting everywhere he goes, sick of the grocery store lines, sick of waiting for a table at restaurants, sick of waiting for taxi cabs, just altogether sick of the modest inefficiencies in his daily life. Azazel hears this complaint, and without George’s explicit request to do so, Azazel corrects the writer friend’s problem without delay.

George doesn’t run into his friend for a little while, but when he finally does the writer seems haggard, aggrieved and generally depressed. Unbeknownst to the writer, he needed those isolated pockets of time to daydream, create and process his ideas for which he has no time anymore to conceive of or hash out. He is miserable because of his lack of self-awareness; he is consumed by a pernicious bout of writer’s block since he did not comprehend the precise value of his time.

The perfect little story to read when you’re 16 and full of beans, asea in the chemical wash that besets us all after puberty. Something stuck with me, and made me a little more patient and sensitive to bubbles of frustration that might afflict me from time to time. The older I get this is easier to forget, especially now that I am in graduate school and drink espresso most every day. I do not want to be like an old boss of mine from the now-defunct Child World (or, Children’s Palace) chain, whom a fellow manager once described memorably as a “guy who takes red lights as a personal offense.”

I mentioned in an earlier post about Haruki Murakami that I hadn’t yet read his new novel, After Dark, and on my flight over to Seattle I finally had the time to invest; I finished it while still in the air, actually. It’s a modest little thing, more like a novella than anything else, but unfortunately I think it would’ve worked better as a short story…


After Dark (Afutādāku), Haruki Murakami transated by Jay Rubin ©2007 (originally 2004) Alfred A. Knopf

Many of the best artists seem so original because they have a peculiar world-view that seems so alien but in which we can recognize ourselves, or the contours of our world. Murakami very often mines this terrain by kneading our recognition into a pulsing silhouette of memory and nostalgia, calling forth tendrils of recognition from a deeply submerged mental seabed of symbols, much like Dali, Jung, Borges and Buñuel. Unfortunately, for many artists and thinkers who inhabit these spaces for too long, their initial insight becomes a locked groove, cycling endlessly over that same grainy inch of inspiration, and what they represented so powerfully at first becomes an aenemic cliché teetering on the edge of parody.

Murakami has flirted with this in several of his works, alternatively successfully (as in A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) and disappointingly (Sputnik Sweetheart, anyone?). After Dark is nearly a failure, but there is enough tweaking of his formula to keep it interesting for a time. His central conceit is that there are two worlds which inhabit us all, and it is the struggle to maintain a distinct separation between the two that fuels the emotional psychology of his characters. He is like David Lynch in this respect; each of them repeatedly returns to either the idea of the doppelgänger or of the homunculus, and each has an overwhelming need to make this separation explicit. For Lynch, it can appear as corporeal agents who freely traverse both worlds, or in the case of Twin Peaks it is the Black and White lodges. For Murakami, it is a rift in a person’s consciousness, a mysterious disappearance or a physical twin. No matter how firm our identification with a sense of reality, there is an equally tenable alternate reality holding scissors to our worryingly thin umbilical thread.

In After Dark the doppelgänger twins are sisters, Eri and Mari. Eri is a hopelessly beautiful model who is condemned to a self-imposed somnolescence throughout the entire book. Mari is her younger sister, and the essential heart of the work. Mari is an insomniac most nights since her sister’s several month-long exile of sleep began, unaware that she is searching for her sister somewhere in the shadowy nether regions of the night. The period after midnight is predictably depicted as an entry-point to alternative worlds, where Mari is beset with trials and nudging revelatory episodes in roughly the same manner as Kubrick’s Bill Hartford during his waking nightmare in Eyes Wide Shut.

The chapters alternate between the metaphoric malaise of each sister, and what is so alienating is that Murakami seems to be slumming it. The symbols do not carry their weight and feel forced upon the story rather than comfortably paired with it. A Videodrome-esque force powers an unplugged television, at one point capturing Eri for a time in a cavernous office space occupied by a plastic masked & chair-bound stranger, indistinctly flickering between two worlds, which is threatening but too obscure to really haunt. Murakami’s characters feel roughly sketched, which can serve as a concise metaphor in a developed shorter work but is often not compelling in a longer story,especially where emotional states represent a psychological twilight.

Film Still from Alphaville by Jean-Luc Goddard

Perhaps the strangest part is his narration, in which the observer/reader is supposed to be a camera-eye, somewhat in the tradition of Dziga Vertov’s documentary style conception but likely just a literalization of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a continued reference point for the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen Alphaville, which is a great sci-fi noir from 1965 sans sci-fi special effects, but it is an accurate symbolic kernel for Murakami to re-imagine. In the dystopian future of Alphaville, private eye Lemmy Caution must navigate a dangerous technocratic dictatorship run by the sentient Alpha 60 mainframe. Alpha-60 has outlawed illogical constructs such as love, poetry and emotion, replacing them with an ideation of logical science and, by extension, Nazism and fascism. The film continually quotes bits from Jorge Luis Borges, in particular “A New Refutation of Time,” which provides the resolution in Caution’s final confrontation with Alpha-60. (I cannot recommend Labyrinths by Borges highly enough, the source of the original Refutation essay)

Murakami’s vaguely noir narrator is intrusive and ingratiating in a strange way, continually appealing to our TV-moderated visual sense while cheapening the motif of electrically charged menace. I’m not a fan of narration which disrupts the flow of a story unless it is absolutely crucial to communicating the symbolic resonance of a story. Far more often than not narration is a substitute for substance, masking holes in the narrative or simplifying the process of revelation central to a well-crafted narrative. Worse, they try to artificially involve you in the story without making the effort to convey the emotional weight naturally. (I am thinking of Tom Robbins’ 2nd-person narrative misfire Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas in particular) I just wonder why he chose to use a narrator who speaks directly to the readers, and it never became clear to me unless he is writing with an eye toward the eventual cinematic treatment…

Like Lynch before him, who nowadays is endlessly recycling symbolic content in an accelerating circle of fragmentary polarization, Murakami is at risk of seeming like a one-trick pony if he doesn’t ease up on using and abusing his highly personalized semiotic universe. Perhaps he needs to slow down, and appreciate any opportunities for any restful isolated pockets of time. My advice to you then is to read his earlier works first, and though After Dark isn’t as bad as Sputnik Sweetheart it is not essential, more of a holding pattern than a fully realized narrative. For me it just deepened my admiration for the numerous brilliant works he has already so effortlessly created.

Dangerously Close to the Highway with Ralph Steadman

July 11, 2007

I was reading a bit of Herzog on Herzog recently,which is part of the wonderful “directors on directors” series wherein filmmakers talk to themselves about their careers. Or rather, someone interviews the director and then stitches together a savvy retrospective of their work. I really like the David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Terry Gilliam editions, but there are quite a few others I haven‘t read.

Anyhow, in the Herzog one I came across this quote from his bête noire Klaus Kinski:

Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep…he should be thrown alive to the crocodiles! An anaconda should strangle him slowly! A poisonous spider should sting him and paralyze his lungs! The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode! No panther claws should rip open his throat–that would be much too good for him! Huge red ants should p— into his lying eyes and gobble up his b—- and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It’s no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me.

Nobody is going to buy the book if I say nice things about you, Werner.

Certainly his comments were partly tongue in cheek, but then he and Herzog mythically had a habit of drawing guns on one another during the filming of their movies together. Herzog even directed a movie about his relationship with Kinski, My Best Fiend, but Herzog does seem a bit imbalanced himself…

Kinski’s quote reminded me of a review I had written some years ago which I would like to share with you. It seems fitting since Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson had a similarly tumultuous relationship, which is well represented by Thompson’s letter to Steadman from the intro to The Curse of Lono.

So here’s my book review, I hope you enjoy:


DooDaaa: The Balletic Art of Gavin Twinge, a Triography by Ralph Steadman & Gavin Twinge (pronounced “Twarnge”) Bloomsbury, HC $29.95

It’s useless to imagine what might be that hasn’t been…senseless. A pointillist lost in a cubist’s nightmare. Hundreds of stacks of newspapers printed anemically with soy-based inks, quietly dissolving into late-night television pixels. History is like this, but we describe it generationally. So-and-so, his great-grandmother, she worked in hospice, she scrubbed floors, she rubbed elbows through hospital muumuus with Emma Goldman, learned about the newest cures for hysteria from her, she later worked as a producer on some early films. Never met Valentino, one of her greatest regrets.

By describe I mean an arc, the history we know, factually dictated in alphabetic ideograms we come to understand, as Noam Chomsky would have us believe, because we are literally hardwired to understand the printed word. The Japanese put out bowls of rice for the dead (rice of which the dead only consume the vaporous essence as it cools, withers, and hardens, that is them consuming it), and sail little ships, hundreds, a candle in each, incandescent and ephemeral, in appreciation of/out of respect for/representing the soul of/communicating with/and entertaining the dead.

History dissolves like this, leaving traces like calcified rice, obscurely consumed. Recognizable, but altogether different, less functional. Just different; it’s important to consider these differences. We read history and see the life, so, so vibrant once, all the more unreal for how much we resemble it. We see this history though a mirror which hangs askew on the wall, wrapped tightly in a diaphanous cloth, to prevent clarity (to prevent ghosts), we peek voyeuristically through the wrapped mirror’s chinks. We fear the present, this moment; we want to know how to keep it from harboring the dangers already past, sins of the past, mistakes from the past.

Gavin Twinge is one such mistake. He is a huge stain, like a monstrous limned meniscus, fading like a Cheshire grin. An intractable spirit best forgotten. He is barely a drop from the calligrapher’s quill on an ancient five-paneled screen. Barely a stroke of midnight in a futurist landscape, or the spoke of a futurist bicycle; rigorous metal girders holding aloft blue collar souls like so many petrified diamonds, stories buried deeper in the earth than the mines of Moria. Buried for our protection. To free him is to free a mutagenic viral infection, or to loosen the chastity belt society tightened on our animalistic prepubescent consciousness.

Gavin Twinge is inaccessible, an aggrandizing megalomaniac with a silver spoon in his mouth and a knife to the art critic’s throat babbling incoherently about flart and Vera and endless vintages of wine he’s quaffed in pursuit of his art’s luscious ass.

Read DooDaaa at your own risk, I tell you. For your own sake, please, do not read DooDaaa. You’ll wake up drunk, in a gutter on the side of the road, dangerously close to the highway, and you’ll have no idea where you left your car.

There were no polite ways of maintaining the status quo any more than there was a polite way to slit a hanging pig’s throat.” –Gavin


Curse of Lono by Ralph Steadman

I only tell you these things because I love you, Ralph.