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Nonsense

"The end of all things is near."

On the (27 hour) plane ride back from New Zealand, I watched a lot of movies, some unremarkable – some wonderful. Watching Happy-Go-Lucky was painful for some reasons, and beautiful for others – but it definately hit me with the pink laserbeam between the eyes.

Watching classics like The Apartment and Manhattan made me wonder at the romances we’d write about some cities, and Slumdog Millionaire bizarrely seemed like a continuation of that: a romance of the maximum-city.

But, beside that – everytime a movie finished, the entertainment system reset to it’s main menu, with one of those airline entertainment system pseudo-radio stations playing on a loop.

And I hit the same point in the loop everytime.

And at that point in the loop played the same song everytime.

The song was a romance of the city.

A romance of electricity and colour and life and density of opportunity.

Electricity so fine
Look and dry your eyes

The song was “Stepping Out” by Joe Jackson.

Go and listen.

Watch.

I’ll stay put.

In recent months I’ve definitely fallen into a Collapsitarian rut of sorts.

A comprehensive map of all possible human futures

We -
Are young but getting old before our time

This won’t do.

As Jamais Cascio says, quoting Evelin Lindner:

“Pessimism is a luxury of good times. In difficult times, pessimism is a
self-fulfilling, self-inflicted death sentence.”

The wave of stuff coming down the lightcone is for sure a Danmaku-like bullet-curtain of environmental, societal and technical challenges, but I like Danmaku!

That’s where the action is, where the flow is felt, and where design wrangling of the sweetest kind can be done.

So, more wrangling, less hand-wringing.

Big bets should be made.

Happy-gets-lucky!

It took at 27 hour flight to realise that 27 years ago in 1982, Joe Jackson knew this and planted a time capsule into culture to help me with 2009.

It’s The Anti-Collapsitarian Anthem.

We -
So tired of all the darkness in our lives
With no more angry words to say
Can come alive
Get into a car and drive
To the other side

That’s some foresight, right there. So if you are feeling a little collapsitarian, try stepping out.

You -
Can dress in pink and blue just like a child
And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile
We’ll be there in just a while
If you follow me

Thanks Joe.

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Sir Ken Adam in conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling, V&A

I saw Sir Ken Adam, production designer of numerous Bonds, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and Dr. Strangelove amongst other movies, interviewed by Christopher Frayling at the V&A last Friday, as part of their current Cold War Modern exhibit.

As a result, Frayling concentrated the conversation on those iconic Cold War images of the war room in Dr. Strangelove, and the numerous lairs for Bond Villains he had designed.

Frayling described these lairs with a lovely turn of phrase, paraphrasing Corbusier’s “houses are machines for living in” – that they were “Machines for being a meglomaniac in”.

Adam responded that his intention was to make the Bond Villain a contemporary creature. They should embedded in the material culture of the times – albeit with the resources of a meglomaniac millionaire or billionaire – and also able to reach a little bit beyond into a near-future as those resources allow.

Although rather than maintaining a purely high-modernist aesthetic, Adam’s villains were ostentatious, status-seeking magpies, with their old masters from a daring heist, siberian tiger rugs and priceless antiques on display next to their Eames recliners and Open-plan freestanding fireplaces.

“Gantries and Baroque” might be the best name for the look though, as this finery was, of course, all inside the ‘sanctum-sanctorum’ of their lair – generally they would have maintained such a well-appointed apartment somewhere within a more massive and industrial death-dealing facility staffed by uniformed private armies.

Frayling pointed out this repeating formula in the 60s and 70s Bond movies to the audience. A hidden fortress, that had to be discovered, infiltrated and destroyed with a girl/goddess as guide – but not to be destroyed before we could take in some of the fine lifestyle touches that supervillainy gave as rewards.

But then in an almost throw-away aside to Adam, he reflected that the modern Bond villain (and he might have added, villains in pop culture in general) is placeless, ubiquitous, mobile.

His hidden fortress is in the network, represented only by a briefcase, or perhaps even just a mobile phone.

Where’s the fun in that for a production designer?

Maybe it’s in the objects. It’s not the pictures that got small, but the places our villains draw they powers from.

Perhaps the architypical transformation from gigantic static lair to mobile, compact “UbiLair” is in the film Spartan, where Val Kilmer’s anti-heroic ronin carries everything he needs in his “go-bag” – including a padded shooting mat that unfolds from it to turn any place into a place where he holds the advantage.

Move beyond film and I immediately think of my favourite supervillain of the year, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Stane from Matt Fraction‘s masterful run on the comicbook Invincible Iron Man.

As Fraction puts it:

Zeke is a post-national business man and kind of an open source ideological terrorist, he has absolutely no loyalty to any sort of law, creed, or credo. He doesn’t want to beat Tony Stark, he wants to make him obsolete. Windows wants to be on every computer desktop in the world, but Linux and Stane want to destroy the desktop. He’s the open source to Stark’s closed source oppressiveness. He has no headquarters, no base, and no bank account. He’s a true ghost in the machine; completely off the grid, flexible, and mobile. That absolutely flies in the face of Tony’s received business wisdom and in the way business is done. There are banks and lawyers and you have facilities and testing. Stane is a much more different animal. He’s a much smarter, more mobile and much quicker to respond and evolve futurist.

Zeke has no need for specialised infrastructure beyond commodity gear than he can improvise and customise. He doesn’t need HeliCarriers or giant military-industrial infrastructure like Tony Stark. He just needs his brain and his hate. As Fraction says in an interview:

I was trying to figure out what a new Iron Man would look like, and I figured, well, there wouldn’t be a suit anymore. The user would be the suit. I just started to riff on that, on cybernetics and riffing on weaponized bodymod culture stuff. Tony’s old money, old world, old school and old model manufacture. So where would Stane, a guy that had no manufacturing base and no assembly facilities, get his tech? Everything would need power sources, so how would that work? Where would the surgeries be performed? How would he pay for it? What’s his ideology? I started reading up on 4G war and warfare. And on and on until I understood Stane’s reality, and how Stane would wage war on Stark Industries and Tony both.

So – for a “4th generation warfare” supervillain there aren’t even objects for the production designer to create and imbue with personality. The effects and the consequences can be illustrated by the storytelling, but the network and the intent can’t be foreshadowed by environments and objects in the impressionist way that Adam employed to support character and storytelling.

But – what about materialising, visualising these invisible networks in order to do so?

Dan Hill just published a spectacular study of his – into the ‘architecture’ of wifi in a public space. They make visible the invisible flows of the network around tangible architecture, and the effect that has on how people inhabit that tangible space.

Interesting, deeply-interesting stuff.

Me, I just think that’s what’s fluxing and flexing around the 4th Gen Bond Villain.

That’s what could telegraph to us, the audience their bad intentions. That’s what communicates their preference, and their potency. Could it do it as effectively, immediately, seductively as Sir Ken could with Cor-Ten and Cashmere?

Probably not. Yet.

The visualisations he’s made Dan freely admits make more than a nod to Cedric Price‘s Aviary at London Zoo. Price himself being no stranger to creating intangible, mobile, flexible architectures – I bet he would have been bursting with ideas for 4th Gen Bond Villain UbiLairs…

In the mean-time, in the real world of all-controlling superpowers, we seem to be coming full circle, architecture professor Jeffrey Huang has been investigating the all-too-tangible architecture of what we rather-wishfully call the cloud: server farms.

These hydropowered, energy-guzzelling megastructures seem to have all the ‘Gantry’ but not a lot of ‘Baroque’ panache to qualify as good old-fashioned Bond Villain SuperLairs.

But, perhaps Larry and Sergei are working on it…

This summer, Google put a patent on floating data centers cooled and powered by the ocean.

Sir Ken was always ahead of his time.

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Bond is captured – manacled and attached to a slab of cold steel bracketed by lasers and buzzsaws, suspended high above a pool of sharks.

Out of the shadows cast by the harsh arc-lights illuminating his base hewn from the caldera, steps The Bond Villain of the Long Now.

He straightens his Nehru jacket, adjusts his monocle to better see the figures scrolling past on it’s HUD and clears his throat.

Bond suppresses a chuckle.

Time for the speech.

“Now Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

In real-time.

with me.

and all of us.”

He takes a step closer to a suddenly frozen Bond.

He kisses his cheek with a brotherly tenderness the agent has never known.

And cuts him free.

12 years later. A park bench in Cambridge.

A dishevelled man in a raggedy tuxedo idly burns tiny marks in the wooden slats with his laser watch and stares into the middle distance.

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Chief Engineer Henry writes:

“Hello there,

We’re doing ok – slowly, but surely. I’ve been continuing to build & test in the evenings and weekends – I’ve built a ‘unit revolution’ of the new helix, using the original framework but with 00 gauge model railway to convey the postcard, which is supported on cardboard and held in place by some natty adjustable brackets which i’ve built from odd bits of plywood and acrylic which was hanging around.

test-build of one revolution of the spiral

Attached are some (in build) pics…
The parts were easy enough to make (especially with my natty new tabletop bandsaw) but I’ve been being extra cautious and testing what happens to the structure over time – I don’t want any of those subtle changes that were frakking things up with the last ‘design’.
The brackets need a little more work, in order to induce controllable camber – I think its a matter of a bolt per bracket, connected to the copper pipe.
customisable camber brackets
That way, I’ll be able to ‘dial in’ the amount of camber needed for each quarter of the helix (at the top, too much camber is a bad thing – it stops the truck because it hasn’t started moving very much, at the bottom you need quite a bit – the truck is moving rather quickly and has a tendancy to fly off – more camber required…)
The next stage is to complete the entire helix – which is a matter of manufacturing more of the same standard parts and slotting them together. The helix can then be tuned and the rest of the layout completed.
So, the carrying postcard should be able to decend via gravity. Hopefully the more finite adjustment of the track will mean that this will work fine…. hopefully.
the postcard carriage
I was giving quite a lot of thought to how the truck would get itself back up to the top – the last meeting with Russell fixed me on having a powered arduino controlled shunter to do the work.
All the other methods seem too complicated in one way or another. The shunter is simplest – it can either be battery powered (with a recharge station at the shop end of the track) or can be powered through the track itself, just like a model railway.
I’m inclined to go for the battery powered option – because then the track doesn’t have to be cleaned (which is a pain in the arse, and will be tricky considering how delicate the track supports will be….)
In *theory* once the helix part is complete, the rest of the track is very easy – about as easy as it was to make that bit of track we built previously. The next complicated part is the postcard pickup, and following that the part that pushes the postcard off the truck at the other end.”
Slow and steady wins the race!
Maybe…
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Moleitau's origin

I never new that changing my URL would cause so much frustration to some people. Sorry, some people.

For those who have asked, “Moleitau” is Cantonese slang for nonsense, which I discovered in a 2006 IHT article:

“…a Cantonese genre called “moleitau,” verbal nonsense comedy that relies on quality writing of rapid-fire dialogue, witty ripostes and punning, exemplifies the form even while expanding it to include ribald repartee, broad and low-brow humor, anachronistic gags and biting satire of every social convention and custom.”

And ‘magical nihilism’ is at one level just a pun, and at the same time, an anti-belief belief system that makes me happy and wonderous and curious. Which is what I’d like this place to be.

“We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurance of monstrous proportions.”

The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, p298

Welcome again to Magical Nihilism.

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axis of praxis, originally uploaded by russelldavies.

Russell’s proved my new shirt design exists by buying one from here…

I’m not entirely sure, but I think the colour-infill of the letters is crazy nu-rave reflecto stuff. I might change that… Unless people really like it!

A week or so ago, Ryan of Adaptive Path conducted a long, looping interview with me over IM where we covered the above and beyond.

Of course, this was meant to be something punchy, level-headed and action-packed as a promotion for their upcoming MX event, where people want to hear about the business-like practicalities and opportunities of ‘design thinking’ etc.

Instead they got something that Peter accurately described as ‘DVD-extras’, and I’m pretty comfortable with that.

For me, at least, and YMMV of course – crispy, crunchy blue-shirt and chinos bullet-points don’t do it. Design, invention and making comes out of play, punning and rambling on – generative, diverging and looping and splicing.

I’m very glad that Ryan decided to do the interview in IM, rather than emailing me questions that I could respond to as if in an exam. It’s a fun mess, that I’m glad to say Peter returned to and found a seed of something to advance further himself: the influence that our new ability of visualising shared behaviours has on our old ability as a social species to flock.

I’m hoping that my talk at MX will have a little more discipline to it, but still have enough DVD extras there for people to pick out and run with. If you register for MX, then use the discount code AP have given me: “MXMJ”, you’ll get 15% off the
registration price…

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