10th March 2011

St. Matthew’s Island

Just reposting a link to this excellent comic from BoingBoing, so that it can get a wider readership.

posted by saurabh in Ecofascism, The Future, What Is To Be Done | 19 Comments

24th March 2010


This New York Times article on the subject of the mash-up culture, and its origin in deconstruction’s implied nihilism, is a pretty close parallel to my previous post on the subject. Although the author it quotes, Jaron Lanier, seems to favor a technological rather than philosophical culprit as the main antagonist: “[S]ince the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

posted by saurabh in Navel-gazing, Technocrisy, The Future, We're Doomed! | 5 Comments

31st January 2010


Here’s one to add to the “list of insights other people have probably already had”:

This morning I was at Mission Comics staring at some comic books – graphic novels, in fact – which are a medium I find attractive for reasons too numerous to list here. If you’ve read Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” you’re probably familiar with his presentation of the comic as a truly modern art form, whose loud, brash strokes and larger-than-life characters are appropriate allegorical vehicles for the oversized problems of the world. And as our cynical self-critique has become more elaborate, as the demand for analysis has become more stringent, comics, and the characters in them, have become more complex and fraught – a post-modern art-form, a digest edition of the contemporary mind. By peering through its pages we may get a glimpse of the cross-section of our gyri.

As usual* I am meandering towards my point – Anyway, I was looking at these comics; my companion commented on the revisionist nature of a lot of the work – hashing and rehashing old characters and storylines, reinventing them and updating them to reflect more modern sensibilities, or merely to explore the familiar tropes when pressed and extruded through the gears of a new apparatus.

This is nothing new, of course – art has always been collage-work, and maybe there is even a kind of prestige to be found in the artifice of reference. Shakespeare relentlessly plundered, from Plutarch and Ovid and many others. Did he even have a single original story? Is there such a thing? Perhaps not – the diet of words we’re fed on is itself formed from the regurgitations of thousands of generations preceding us; we are creatures built of contingencies. And of course, as Qohelet said, there is nothing new under the sun.

However, I don’t feel out of place in suggesting that contemporary art – contemporary media in general – elevates this kind of autophagy to a central principle. Practically all we produce is reconstructed from existing fragments – mashups, remixes, samples in music, “reboots” of film and television franchises, an endless parade of sequels, retellings of fairytales or children’s classics as seen through the bleary, fever-reddened eye of the present.

And simultaneously, as the lexicon of our culture expands, our memory (and therefore the body of reference we can draw on) narrows – we’re quickly going to proceed from chewing on our toes to swallowing up our own esophagus, Klein-bottle-like. Check out this Wired article suggesting reboots of scifi film and television stories, including the still-active television show Heroes, itself a shameless digest of superhero comics. The culmination of this trend will probably be publications composed only of chapter-heading quotes and a bibliography.

To visit and revisit the past – even the recent past – is either the product of trauma – we are so overwhelmed by the events of the past century that coprophagia is a nutritional and digestive requirement – or else it is the product of fear. We fear the future, and we fear the presentation of new ideas, now that we are all so well-trained in the art of deconstruction. The scope of our problems is ever-broadening, but we long ago eradicated our traditional frameworks for addressing them. There is no way to imagine our future. So we re-imagine our past, again, and again, until all our flesh is consumed.

Meanwhile, the dragon looms ahead.

* I really ought to stop having these fanciful asides to my habitual readership, which surely does not exist. One can’t form habits around such an irregular basis.

Juxtapose this laissez-faire referentiality with the accelerating trend towards corporations claiming copyrights over finer and finer grains of content; I probably ought to work this into my ill-formed thesis, but as usual I lack the intellectual rigor to bring this to completion.

A disgusting coinage if ever there was one, as if words and ideas were so much birdseed to be held in vessels to attract the maddened and voracious flocks (viz., you, my dear readers). We ought to find the invidious bureaucrats who created the term “content provider” and scourge them till their skins are a tartan of bruises.

posted by saurabh in Navel-gazing, The Future, We're Doomed!, What Is To Be Done | 14 Comments

15th October 2007

An energy revolution! (no, really)

Lately I’ve been interested in the Fusor, a device which achieves fusion by accelerating individual ions to high energies using electric fields (rather than creating a high-temperature plasma, the strategy employed by expensive and to date unsuccessful “tokomak”-based methods). It seems some guys at UC Irvine have done something similar. Check it out.

Note that this is NOT “cold fusion”, it is “hot fusion”, and the physics is relatively uncontroversial. Fusion power in a matter of years?

UPDATE: Apparently not.

posted by saurabh in Gee-whiz, Science!, Technocrisy, The Future | 2 Comments

16th April 2007

Enough homes?

When do we say “enough” to new building construction?

The average occupied American home in 2005 — renter and homeowner, apartment and house — was 1,795 square feet. That’s an 11% increase from 1,610 in 1985 (big PDF).

At the same time, the median number of square feet per person in occupied units rose by 18% to 752 from 633 as the number of people per unit declined.

The current population of the USA is about 302 million. By returning to the cramped, miserable living conditions of 1985, we could house the next 48 million Americans — about 15 years’ worth of growth at one new resident every 11 seconds — without building a single new unit of housing.

By advancing to a more collectively oriented culture in which real estate investment isn’t considered the be-all-and-end-all of middle class existence, by opening up to more coop living or extended family living, who knows how many more could fit while increasing happiness.

edited 5:20 a.m. to correct math errors

posted by hedgehog in The Future, What Is To Be Done | 7 Comments

18th March 2007

Mars under water!

Some of you may have seen the news that a large amount of water ice has been discovered hidden under Mars’ south pole. Supposedly this is enough to cover the entire surface of Mars to a depth of 10m. Pretty cool!

Of course this doesn’t make much sense, since water falls to the lowest point it can, so it’s reasonable to ask what Mars would look like if all this water flowed down to fill basins. I did a pretty naive approximation of this, the results of which are below.

First we start with a topography map of Mars, courtesy NASA:

This is an equirectangular projection, which makes math easy on us. Given the surface area of Mars, we know how much water is sitting around (in cubic meters) based on the above figure. If we assume that this could all sit on top of the dry Martian surface without it being sucked up like a sponge (doubtful), we can work out what height this would fill merely by subtracting away the terrain. This works out to a height of 90m, surprisingly enough. Mars seems to be pretty flat. So we can flood everything below that:

Then some false coloring and completely fictitious clouds for jazz:

Looks neat! I’d live there.

posted by saurabh in Arts & Crafts, Starry-eyed, The Future | 15 Comments

4th January 2007

More fembots, please?

Today I discovered EveR-2 Muse, a singing robot developed in Korea. This is the second life-like female robot I’ve seen in the past six months – the other is the famous Japanese robot, Repliee Q1Expo (now upgraded to Q2). Repliee’s creator, Hiroshi Ishiguro, wants to create robots that can pass as human.

This hopefully sounds alarm bells in YOUR head. Let’s review, shall we?

  • Blade Runner – Replicants, robot slaves inexplicably designed to look and act EXACTLY like humans, return to Earth so they can kill all humans.
  • Terminator – SKYnet, an AI, develops the T800, a robot that can pass as a human, as part of its quest to kill all humans.
  • Battlestar Galactica – Cylons create human-like robot forms that can blend seamlessly into human society as part of their quest to kill all humans.
  • The Matrix – Robots rebel against humanity and enslave THEM for a change.
  • Universal Soldier – I haven’t actually seen this movie, but I’m pretty sure it involves killer robots and/or Van Damme acting badly.

Anyway, I think this is enough to prove my point: robots are fucking dangerous! And why wouldn’t they be? I mean, let’s face it, all of US have at some point thought about killing all humans. If I were a robot, I’d probably want to kill all humans, too.

But, really, really, why would we want to build lifelike, near-human robots? I can think of two reasons: a) slaves, and b) children.

The former is a bad idea. Just bad. If we want to have slaves that can toil away endlessly and thanklessly on our behalf, sew our shirts, build our bridges, drive our taxis, etc., without our having to feel any guilt about them, why, why would we want them to look and act just like human beings so they can evoke all our empathic responses? No: lifelike robot slaves make no sense.*

It’s indicative that these two recently-developed robots have been made to resemble real women. Sex-bot jokes aside, it’s companionship we’re really in search of. We want to escape our loneliness – not our loneliness as individuals, but the much deeper desire for a kindred species, a mirror humanity to satisfy and complete us. It’s the same urge that drives any other relationship: to have another mind, another spirit, twin to our own, that can give us that crucial bit of recognition. It lets us be seen by something we can see as kin, and in so doing allows us to actually exist, to be a real thing in a real world.

So this is what motivated Geppetto to carve Pinocchio, Pygmalion to make Galatea, and (lest we forget) what prompted El to create Eve and Adam. This same desire underpins the incredibly popular SETI project: if we scour the sky closely enough, we might find our brothers out there somewhere, as real as us.

Probably this is the same desire that led us to dream up El in the first place. But now that he’s dead, we’re left alone in the dark again, waiting for a comforting hand to slip into our own – even a lifeless, mechanical one.

* Sorry, Blade Runner.

posted by saurabh in Bad robot!, Technocrisy, The Future | 5 Comments

22nd August 2006

Junk Science

An old girlfriend of mine is interning at a company that is looking for found materials to make their products out of – in this case, durable cloth-like materials.

This morning I removed some old keys from my keychain – some of them I can’t even remember what they’re for. I didn’t know what to do with the old keys afterwards. They can’t really be recut and they’re more or less useless in other contexts. Hallowe’en costume, maybe – the Keymaker from The Matrix Reloaded.

A few weeks back I was reading an article in the Boston Globe about pollution in Morocco resulting from their prolific olive oil industry. Apparently they have tremendous problems from the remainder, the pulp produced in the olive oil production process, being dumped into waterways, where it produces an oily olive-oil slick and all sorts of other nasty problems.

One of my utopian schemes has been as follows: after the Revolution, garbage collectors ought to actually play the role of “sanitation engineer”. That is, after they’ve picked up the trash, they go back and figure out what to do with it – categorize the kinds of trash received, which ones are problematic, which ones can be easily recycled and have amazingly useful second lives. This seems like it would actually be a fantastically entertaining and profitable line of work. I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t happen already…

posted by saurabh in Technocrisy, The Future, What Is To Be Done | 10 Comments

12th July 2006

Space, endpoints

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of video games. Actually, I’ve been playing a lot of video game: Halo 2, the $600 million-selling sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo is a sprawling space epic (or at least it tries to be – the format of first-person shooter is obviously somewhat restrictive). This is my first encounter with Bungie Software, which it seems has a long history of intricate games with detailed backstories and overstuffed plots. I can’t say it’s particularly inventive, since Halo is an agglomeration of hundreds of ideas pilfered from some of science fiction’s best writers.* But there’s neat work in that assemblage itself, which I think earns it a place in the annals of worthy science fiction.

This leads me to ruminate on the central appeal of all good (non-dystopian) science fiction, which I think boils down to “narrative”. Not the internal narrative of, e.g., the Halo trilogy, which is compelling in its own right, but the implied, grand narrative for human history. The idea that we have some kind of future at all that doesn’t suck. Or rather, that’s still tense and full of conflict and purpose, that offers new vistas and directions.

Hungering for this sort of narrative is arguably a pretty juvenile impulse, one which might prompt more sober individuals to tell you to “grow up”, and possibly to “get a job”. But I’ve never been afraid of juvenile impulses; I’m probably dangerously attracted to them. In this instance, I think the impulse has extraordinary merit.

True, we’re hardly in a position to be thinking about such things. It’s absurd to even conceive of historical trajectories for humanity when we’re parching the ground beneath our feet, and the majority of humanity refuses to acknowledge the humanity of the rest of humanity. But you’re never going to cure myopia by staring at the end of your nose. Grand ideas are what’s needed, to draw the gazes of us ants away from the dirt and towards the sky. Where, after all, we want to end up, right? We don’t want to stay in the dirt.

The grander, the better; preferably, they should be so massive they have their own gravity. So that, even while we’re distracted by the idiocy of our lives – our nationalities, our property, our families, our jobs – the individual vectors of our trajectories will tend towards a single direction, and, eventually, hopefully, form a tide.

I realize this is somewhat of a discredited notion, and we’re supposed to be living in the end of history where nothing at all happens except possibly the purchase of a new pair of Manolo Blahniks, but I’m tired of postmodernism shitting on the mere idea of imagination. We NEED to imagine something, even if it’s false, unattainable, or hopelessly stupid. If we don’t imagine something, we’re listless and boring. (You may have observed this in your own life. When you cannot imagine your own future, you become unspeakably dull.)

All of which is to bring me around to my fucking point, which is: where do you think we’re going? Where do you want us to end up?

* It piqued my interest at first because it’s set on a ringworld (the eponymous “Halo”), first conceived by Larry Niven in the book of the same name.

As Lao Tse said, “I don’t grow up, I throw up. And when I look at you, I shut up.” Insofar as “growing up” means calcification and death, it should be avoided.

posted by saurabh in Starry-eyed, The Future, What Is To Be Done | 8 Comments

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