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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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gmm

Many have commented on Google’s new version of Google Mobile Maps, and specifically it’s “My Location” feature.

Carlo Longino homes in on the fact that it provides, finally, a somewhat humane and useful basis for a lot of the location-based services use-cases that mobile service providers and product marketers have salivated over for around a decade.

“I know my own zip code, but I don’t know its boundaries, nor do I know any others here in Vegas. So if I’m out looking for something, I’ve got little idea where to start. That’s the big problem with local search – we tend to spend a lot of our time in the same places, and we get to know them. We’re most likely to use search when we’re in an unfamiliar area – but often our unfamiliarity with the area precludes us from even being able to divine a starting point for our search. You don’t necessarily need GPS to get a starting point, as this new feature highlights.”

GMMv2.0 is sufficiently-advanced technology, not because of the concept behind it (location via cell network is pretty known) but the sheer, apparent quality of execution, simplicity and joy injected into the thing. This is something till now missing from most if not all mobile software, especially Symbian software.

Janne once said to me: “no-one codes symbian apps for fun”, and it shows. It’s enough to get the things working for most developers, and as they’re mostly doing it for a salary rather than fun, they walk away before the joy gets injected, or don’t argue when it gets de-scoped.

GMMv2.0 has some of the lovely touches that we’ve seen from the iPhone implementation carried over – like the location pins dropping into place with a little restitutional bounce. Just. So. It seems quicker and more focussed that v1.0, with location search features working to give the bare-bones info right there on the map rather than breaking-frame to a dialog.

The main, huge, thing though is MyLocation.

Chris gave a talk a few years ago at Etech 2004 called “35 ways to find your location”
, which argued against relying on GPS and ‘satnav’ metaphors for location services.

I don’t know if they downloaded his presentation in Mountain View, but GMMv2.0 delivers on Chris’s vision by not only using cellular location fiding, but how it interprets and displays it. By ditching the assumption that all location tasks are about a -> b in a car, and presenting a fuzzy, more-humane interpretation of your location – it gives a wonderful foundation for wayfinding, particularly while walking, which hopefully they’ll build on.

In other possible advantages that “Do not use while driving” gives you is it become a resource you can use indoors, where I’d guess 90% discussions about where to go and what to do actually happen, and where 90% of GPS’s won’t ever work.

Other contenders in the mobile wayfinding world seem to be pursuing interfaces built on the metaphors and assumptions of the car-bound “satnav” world e.g. Nokia Maps. Probably as a side-effect of most of their senior management driving to work in suburban technology parks everyday!

Actually, Nokia Maps (at least the last version I used, I switched to GMM and haven’t returned) does something even more bizarre when it starts up and shows you a view of the entire earth’s globe from orbit! I cannot think of a less user-centred, task-appropriate entry point into an application!

Very silly.

The Google mobile team are to be congratulated not only for technical innovation in GMMv2.0, but also having the user-experience savvy to step beyond established cliche in a hot area and think in a context-sensitive, user-centred way about the problem.

As Carlo says:

“I continue to be slightly amazed at the speed with which Google gets these apps and services out, and the overall quality of them, though I guess it’s a testament to the amount of resources they’re throwing at mobile these days.”

Can’t wait to see what’s next.

“‘The lists in this book,’ I ventured to a Kylie momentarily caught precisely midway between a cynical world and a romantic one, ‘locate us somewhere, I hope beautifully, midway between the slight and the complete, between the incomplete and the deep.’

Kylie fainted. I think my audacity had penetrated the barrier of fame that separated her from everyday speculation, and had caused a couple of vital wires to snap. She had a way of fainting in slow motion that was both alarming and alluring. I had to explain that, yes, the list often just a nice way of passing the time, of showing of the hipness of your choices, a sketchy part of a self-portrait, a way of wallowing in a bubbly nostalgia that returns you to a simpler, sweeter time, of trying to contain sheer chaos in little patches of consoling order, of making plans for a future that seems so blank and featureless you have to impose shape on it by transferring things in easily wrapped packages. Lists help you believe that there will be a future – by reminding you that the things you are listing have happened, in a time that was once a future, and that therefore there will be a future where things will happen that can then be listed and taken forward to remind us of a past where stuff was generated that made us believe there is a present and so, ultimately a future.”

Words and Music, Paul Morley

Which is the best preamble I can think of to my obligatory last.fm rolling yearly top 20 (sort-of) chart of albums:

1 Tunng – This is… Tunng: Mothers Daughter and other Tales
18
2 Sigur Rós – Agaetis Byrjun
17
3 Jim Noir – Tower Of Love
16
4 808 State – 808:88:98
14
5 Broken Social Scene – Broken Social Scene
9
5 Richard Hawley – Coles Corner
9
7 Hot Chip – The Warning
8
8 Television – Marquee Moon
7
8 Sébastien Tellier – Sebastien Tellier Sessions
7
10 Viva Voce – The Heat Can Melt Your Brain
6
10 Gorillaz – Demon Days
6
12 Grandaddy – Excerpts From the Diary of Todd Zilla
5
13 Various Artists – Lost in Translation
4
13 Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Deluxe Edition) (disc 2)
4
13 Gary Jules – Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets
4
13 The Auteurs – New Wave
4
13 The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike
4
13 The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers
4
19 Brian Eno – Before and After Science
3
19 Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
3
19 Wilco – A Ghost Is Born
3
19 Mull Historical Society – Us
3
19 Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
3
19 Charlotte Hatherley – Grey Will Fade
3
19 We Are Scientists – With Love and Squalor

And top ten tracks

1 Television – Marquee Moon
7
2 Justice Vs Simian – We Are Your Friends (Radio Edit)
6
3 Nick Drake – One of These Things First
5
3 The Automatic – Monster
5
3 Sébastien Tellier – La Ritournelle
5
6 Sigur Rós – Intro
4
6 Jim Noir – Key of C
4
6 Sébastien Tellier – Fantino
4
6 Arctic Monkeys – When the Sun Goes Down
4
6 Belle and Sebastian – Funny Little Frog
4

By comparing both of them, it’s clear that my last.fm usage is a reflection of where my music is - i.e. I listen to last.fm a lot at work, where I have very little music stored on my hard-drive(s).

There’s a smattering of iTms purchases which tend to be earworms I need to purchase and listen to immediately, DRM-be-damned. In this category I would place Justice Vs Simian’s ‘We are your friends’, ‘Monster’ by The Automatic and ‘Key of C’ by Jim Noir.

Sidenote: it is extremely gratifying for the reader of Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’ to find while referencing the wikipedia definition of ‘earworm’ that it’s first example of an earworm in popular culture is ‘I can’t get you out of my head’ by Kylie Minogue.

There are also things revealing of deeper needs, flaws and habits here – but again related to place. I often have a overwhelming need to play Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ loudly on my speakers when everyone else have left my little bit of the office – which is well represented here.

It’s also clear that aside from these ‘hits’ that I placed on heavy-rotation I spent most of my listening year in my own long-tail, as it were. Heh – I think I might be disappearing up my own buzzword there. Ahem.

Revealing, in review, in terms of Last.fm’s character: it’s radio-station metaphor seems to have a powerful hold on me. I walk away from it, I leave it running, I come back to it.

There’s an implicit ‘passivity’ pitch: ‘just enjoy the music, it’ll be exactly what you want’ which belies the activity you have to invest in it: rating, banning, skipping.

To quote Paul Morley again, the list is a way: ‘of showing of the hipness of your choices’ but a last.fm list is a mix of my choices, a machines choices and a multiplication of the two via the choices of others.

When I look at this list I see things that have a high rating that I would never actively ‘select’ e.g. Gary Jules (Gary Bloody Jules?! That’s putting a major dent in the ‘hipness of my choices’) but have probably played to no listener and multiplied their way up the list each time they have sung to no-one but the database.

So presenting a last.fm list of your year can feel an oddly-outsourced form of self-portraiture. A partly ghost-written musical memoire.

Yet – there are some gratifying things there – things which I discovered through last.fm and social-music-discovery-technology (clumsy!) – like Broken Social Scene, Tunng, Sufjan Stevens (late to the party on all three, another hole in the hipness of my choices…)

Richard Hawley ranks highly too – one of the albums which I think I always played as an album – a rare thing in this shuffle-culture, and also one that on a road-trip to West Wales I found that myself, my wife and my father all enjoyed. Again – rare!

So the list ends, 2006 ends – but last.fm keeps on cataloguing, “reminding you that the things you are listing have happened, in a time that was once a future, and that therefore there will be a future..”

Happy new year!

Jason Kottke points to a remarkable post by Kevin Kelly entitled The Big Here, after the Eno-coined-counterpart to the Long Now – which shoots a diamond bullet through my thoughts for the last few months:

At the ultimate level, your home is a cell in an organism called a planet. All these levels interconnect. What do you know about the dynamics of this larger system around you? Most of us are ignorant of this matrix. But it is the biggest interactive game there is. Hacking it is both fun and vital.

In the post it goes on to take you through a quiz which examines your knowledge of your immediate environs, and the linkages it has to the wider ecosystem.

Here are the first three questions:

30 questions to elevate your awareness (and literacy) of the greater place in which you live:

1) Point north.

2) What time is sunset today?

3) Trace the water you drink from rainfall to your tap.

Kelly prefaces this with a positioning of the quiz as one of his “cool tools”:

“The intent of this quiz is to inspire you to answer the questions you can’t initially. I’d like to collect and then post the best step-by-step suggestions about how to answer a particular question. These are not answers to the quiz, but recommended paths on how one might most efficiently answer the question locally. Helpful websites which can provide local answers are wanted. Because of the severe specificity of local answers, the methods provided should be as general as possible. The emerging list of answer-paths will thus become the Cool Tool.”

So far, so good.

Wonderful, even.

My immediate thought though, reading both Jason’s post and Kevin Kelly’s mission is why the hell is this not on a mobile?

So – I over the summer am going to try and knit something together to get it there.

  1. I imagine it will be pretty easy (i.e. within the reach of my terrifyingly-bad coding skills) just to port the text quiz to a mobile using S60 python as a standalone experience.
  2. It might be easy enough then to both launch web resources from the quiz on the mobile device, and perhaps post answers in some easily-aggregated format to back out to the web from whoever takes the quiz.
  3. however might be more tricky…

What I immediately imagined was the extension of this quiz into the fabric of the near-future mobile and it’s sensors – location (GPS, CellID), orientation (accelerometers or other tilt sensors), light (camera), heat (Nokia 5140’s have thermometers…), signal strength, local interactions with other devices (Bluetooth, uPnP, NFC/RFID) and of course, a connection to the net.

The near-future mobile could become a ‘tricorder’ for the Big Here – a daemon that challenges or channels your actions in accordance and harmony to the systems immediately around you and the ripples they raise at larger scales.

It could be possible (but probably with some help from my friends) to rapidly-prototype a Big Here Tricorder using s60 python, a bluetooth GPS module, some of these scripts, some judicious scraping of open GIS data and perhaps a map-service API or two.

One thought that springs to mind would be to simply geotag the results of a quiz (assuming the respondent takes the quiz in-situ!) and upload that to a geowiki, something like Place-O-Pedia.

It might be delightful to see the varying answers from valiant individuals clustered in a location and inspire some collaboration on getting to the ‘right’ answers about their collective bit of the big here or the issues raised by the route there more importantly perhaps.

One open question would be if this ‘Big Here Tricorder’ where realised, would it genuinely raise an individual or community’s awareness of their local ecosystem and it’s connections at other scales? “Every extension is also an amputation” etc.

Well – we won’t know unless we build it.

While we’ve had a couple of year’s noise about Where2.0, I reckon there’s a hell of a lot of mileage and some real good could come of focussing on Here2.0… which gives me a nice little summer project – thanks Kevin, Brian and Jason

World Of Stuart visits the ghost village of Imber in Wiltshire:

In the winter of 1943, the War Office informed the inhabitants of the small Wiltshire village of Imber that their home was being requisitioned for the war effort. With the D-Day landings just a few months away, the government needed places to train American troops for the sort of house-to-house fighting that they expected to encounter in Nazi-occupied Europe, and presumably because of its location in the middle of Salisbury Plain, Imber was an ideal candidate. The villagers were given a month to evacuate, and told they’d be allowed back when the war was over. They never were.

[via Kieron Gillen]

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