why technologies fail

Boingboing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker has written a fine column for the New York Times Magazine called Why your car isn’t electric,’ investigating the question why some technologies fail, and others succeed. For a deeper understanding of the matter at hand and and the examples used, I recommend Pinch & Bijker 1984 and Pfaffenberger 1992.

PFAFFENBERGER, BRYAN. 1992. Technological Dramas. Science, Technology, & Human Values 17(3): 282-312.
PINCH, TREVOR J. UND WIEBE E. BIJKER. 1984. The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. Social Studies of Science 14(3): 399-441.

low poly mask

The low-poly mask by Stephen 'kongorilla' Kongsle
Stephen ‘kongorilla’ Kongsle designed this wearable cardboard mask and has put all you need for it online under a creative commons licence. When I first saw it I immediately had three associations: 1) A Bizarro t-shirt would go perfectly with the mask, 2) there was a time when I perceived the everyday world around me like that, and 3) if you are learning to draw the human head and face this is a wonderful inexpensive tool for understanding the planes of the face. As it turns out association #3 hit it:

Sometime in the future I hope to make a full head version, but I wanted to post what I’ve gotten done so far in case someone could use it for Halloween 2012. The original idea was to make a papercraft alternative for artists who can’t afford the “planes of the head” plaster model, so keep your eyes peeled for further developments.

If you now feel an itch to do something with folding paper, go and watch Vihart‘s Hexaflexagons and Hexaflexagons 2[there's Richard Feynman in it :-]

via entry at boingboing

the flash inspirations

The 23 June 1940 King Features Flash Gordon Sunday strip by Alex Raymond
This is the King Features Flash Gordon Sunday strip by Alex Raymond as it was published on 23 June 1940. We see Gordon [whose adventures began on 07 January 1934] disguised as a ‘Power-Man’ ['the experts on whom Mongo's electrified civilization depends'] infiltrating the palace of Ming the Merciless—and being detected. Please note the design and colour-scheme of the Power-Man uniform Gordon is wearing. The full uniform first was depicted two weeks earlier, in one panel of the strip of 09 June 1940.
Covers of Flash Comics #1 (January 1940) and Showcase #4 (October 1956)
Earlier the same year the DC-superhero The Flash first appeared in Flash Comics #1, published in January 1940 [above left], drawn by Harry Lampert. The long-sleeved t-shirt worn by the fastest man alive is practically identical with the one of Flash Gordon as a Power-Man. The rest of the dress is totally different. Nevertheless does it seem like Raymond was inspired by the Golden Age‘s speeding superhero.
    The Silver Age Flash had his debut in Showcase #4 [above right], pencilled by Carmine Infantino and inked by Joe Kubert. This time it seems to be the other way round: the inspiration for the superhero’s looks comes from Raymond’s work.


what is that?

zeph’s pop culture quiz #45
What is that?
What is the large mechanical contraption in the picture everybody is staring at? In which movie does it appear and what does it do within the plot of that movie?
    Just leave a comment with your educated guess—you can ask for additional hints, too. [Leaving a comment is easy; just click the 'Leave a comment' at the end of the post and fill in the form. If it's the first time you post a comment, it will be held for moderation. But I am constantly checking, and once I've approved a comment, your next ones won't be held, but published immediately by the system.]

UPDATE and solution (09 October 2012):
Titlecard of 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers' (Sears 1956)
Once again Alexander Rabitsch has done it: The machine is a Bush Differential Analyzer. About one hour into Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (Sears 1956) it helps to decrypt a message from the aliens. The machine seen in the movie belonged to the UCLA and was installed there in 1947. The machine was the child of Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) who had begun to work on this kind of analogue special purpose computers during the late 1920s.
    ‘My main effort was on the differential analyzer, which could mechanically solve differential equations.’ (Bush 1970: 161) Accordingly in 1927 Bush at MIT starts to construct a practical version of the Differential Analyzer as invented by James Thomson (1822-1892), elder brother of mathematical physicist and engineer William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907). Once finished, in 1930, this analogue computer proofs to work flawlessly and is able to solve differential equations comprising up to 18 independent variables. (Puchta 1996)
    A young doctoral student at the MIT is involved in the project—Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001). For his thesis he takes ‘the application of the techniques of classical Boolean algebra of classes to the study of switching systems in electrical engineering,’ (Wiener 1965 [1948]: 13) and thus creates digital circuit design theory.
    ‘We actually built three successive analyzers. The first one was just a breadboard machine. That is, it was made out of pieces of steel and anything else that was handy, [...] (Bush 1970: 182)—improvisation, and, much more important, rededication again.
    During the 1930s Bush Analyzers are built in Great Britain, at Manchester, Cambridge, Belfast, and Farnborough, and in Oslo, Norway. During the early 1940s more incarnations follow in the United States, e.g. at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and in the basement of the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) with the Differential Analyzer at MIT

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) with the Differential Analyzer at MIT

In 1941 an advanced version is constructed at MIT, called the ‘Rockefeller Differential Analyzer’ (RDA), because the Rockefeller Foundation largely has funded this apparatus of Babbageian dimensions, weighing 100 tons, comprising ’2,000 electronic tubes, 200 miles of wire, 150 motors, and several thousand relays.’ (Wildes & Lindgren 1985: 92) Its predecessors are hard to set up for solving a particular problem, because the procedure requires e.g. manual reconnection of shafts. The RDA in contrast reads its instructions from three punched tapes.
    With Vannevar Bush’s Differential Analyzer the story of the analogue computer, which started with the Antikythera Mechanism, has come full circle and reaches its full bloom.

Nearby Hollywood also discovered the oversized computer [at UCLA], measuring some 31 feet long by 9 feet wide. In the era before “Star Wars” [Lucas 1977] and “Close Encounters” [Spielberg 1977] the differential analyzer was the latest in way-out gadgetry, and it performed skillfully in such science fiction epics of the mid-’50s as “When Worlds Collide” [Maté 1951] and “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.” (Anonymous 1978)

ANONYMOUS. 1978. UCLA’s Bush analyzer retires to Smithsonian. Computer World 09 January 1978: 10.
BUSH, VANNEVAR. 1970. Pieces of the action. Madison: University of Wisconsin.
LUCAS, GEORGE WALTON. 1977. Star wars [motion picture]. Century City: 20th Century Fox.
MATÉ, RUDOLPH. 1951. When worlds collide [motion picture]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures.
PUCHTA, SUSANN. 1996. On the role of mathematics and mathematical knowledge in the invention of Vannevar Bush’s early analog computers. IEEE Annals in the History of Computing 18(4): 49-59.
SEARS, FREDERICK FRANCIS. 1956. Earth vs. the flying saucers [motion picture]. Culver City: Columbia Pictures.
SPIELBERG, STEVEN ALLAN. 1977. Close encounters of the third kind [motion picture]. Culver City: Columbia Pictures.
WIENER, NORBERT. 1965 [1948]. Cybernetics: Or control and communication in the animal and the machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.
WILDES, KARL L. AND NILO A. LINDGREN. 1985. A century of electrical engineering and computer science, 1882-1982. Cambridge: MIT Press.

games with defects

While attending the Third Annual Conference of the Gesellschaft für Fantastikforschung (GFF), at the University of Zurich I got to know René Bauer, a game designer who teaches at the Hochschule der Künste in Zürich (ZHdK). He showed us quite some of the projects done by his students—see yourself at and-or—wonderful, fantastic, up to absolutely hilarious. I especially like the idea of creating computer games with built-in gameplay defects which are making you think. Take for example laichenberg‘, a first-person shooter which was advertised as being ‘more realistic than doom3, unreal etc.’
With the graphics craze of the last decade one naturally assumes that the game features hyper naturalistic graphics to fulfill the claim. But the idea is totally different. Usually in fps-games wherein you rake up insane amounts of frags, the remains of the enemies you’ve overcome dissappear after a while. In ‘Doom 3′ the rationale for that happening is that the killed demons and zombies are returning to hell. In ‘Quake 3,’ or its reincarnation ‘Quake Live,’ the idea is that the Vadriggar, the unseen gamemasters of the arena, remove the fallen warrior who a moment later respawns. And so on. The real reason of course is that the corpses are not only irritating but strain the system which has to render them. Now, ‘laichenberg’ allows the corpses to remain in the game world. That way its archetypical fps-setting, a subterranean maze of bunkers, bit by bit gets filled up with the corpses—until the player can’t move anymore.
Discrimination Pong
Another example which took my breath away is ‘Discrimination Pong—here’s how the developers themselves describe it:

DISCRIMINATION PONG is an anti-discrimination Pong-game. The GameArt project features some serious defects. It visualizes discrimination/racism, makes it playable and very tangible. The player experiences discrimination/racism first-hand while trying to establish a win in this unfair variation of Pong. The ‘not so white-paddle’ is discriminated in several aspects: from its visuals and its movements to the overall gamemechanic of the game. It is very hard for the discriminated player to win a match. Discrimination is implemented in different ways: the ‘not-so-white-paddle’ gets darker and darker. The left paddle may be slower than the right one. The ball may accelerate on the left side of the playground and become too fast to catch in time. The white paddle on the right may receive an extra ball without deserving it. And maybe worst of all, the ball never touches the right wall or paddle but loops slowly back to the left and takes on a faster pace as soon as it reaches the left side of the playground again. A very unfair game indeed! Find out what types of discrimination/racism you have to expect in DISCRIMINATION PONG.
    Virtual worlds and above all games should be a place for equal access. Suggesting a ‘tabula-rasa-play’, as this variation of Pong does in its subtext, amounts to a vision of a world in which all actants have the same chance. But today more and more gamedesigners are willing to implement unfair elements in their games like the option to buy game-relevant items with real currency for personal (in-game) gain.


archæology of steampunk

Just a minute ago I pre-ordered ‘Steampunk: kurz & geek’ (Jahnke & Rauchfuß 2012) after I had read Kueperpunk’s review (he has a reviewer’s copy). It reminded me of Ekaterina Sedia’s introduction (Sedia 2012) in ‘The Mammoth Book of Steampunk’ (Wallace 2012):

With the recent release of The Steampunk Bible (ed. Jeff VanderMeer and SJ Chambers [2011]), it seems that steampunk as a genre finally came into its own and has grown enough to demand its own compendium, summarizing various parts of this remarkably protean movement, and pointing out interesting things happening in its DIY culture, cosplay, film, literature and music. The fact that the steampunk esthetic penetrates all aspects and art forms indicates that it is remarkably malleable and yet recognizable. We often see steampunk as gears and goggles glued to top hats, but this impression is of course superficial, and there is much more complexity to the fashion and maker aspects of it – just take a look at the Steampunk Workshop website by Jake Von Slatt if you don’t believe me! And yet, much like pornography, all of these expressions conform to a common pattern – difficult to describe beyond the superficial, but one just knows it when one sees it. (Sedia 2012: 1)

When we try to grasp steampunk in the sense of Foucault’s ‘Archaeology of Knowledge’ (Foucault 1972 [1969]) the ‘common pattern’ and the concept of the technologically driven alternative course of history becomes tangible, I guess. Additionally effects like steampunk’s spilling over to Latin America become understandable, too.

FOUCAULT, MICHEL. 1972 [1969]. The archaeology of knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications. First published as L’Archéologie du Savoir. Paris: Gallimard.
JAHNKE, ALEX AND MARCUS RAUCHFUß. 2012. Steampunk: kurz & geek. Sebastopol: O’Reilly
SEDIA, EKATERINA. 2012. “Steampunk: Looking to the future through the lens of the past,” in The mammoth book of steampunk edited by Sean Wallace, pp. 1-3. London: Constable & Robinson.
VANDERMEER, JEFF AND S. J. CHAMBERS. 2011. The steampunk bible: An illustrated guide to the world of imaginary airships, corsets and goggles, mad scientists, and strange literature. New York: Abrams Image.
WALLACE, SEAN (ed.). 2012. The mammoth book of steampunk: 30 extraordinary tales. London: Constable & Robinson.
‘Steampunk—kurz & geek’ via entry at kueperpunk

technology, society, and the scope of anthropology

The next biannual conference of the German Anthropological Association (GAA) will take place exactly one year from today, from 2nd to 5th October 2013, in Mainz, Germany. I am organizing a workshop there, called ‘Technology, society, and the scope of anthropology.’ The official call for papers will be sent out by the GAA around end of this month, but here you already have it:

Technologies like—for example, but not exclusively—digital electronics in all its guises, on the one hand permeate everyday life on a global scale and at an accelerating pace. On the other hand, hardly surprising, those are omnipresent in societal, political, economic, and artistic discourses. Anthropology has not been blind to this. In recent years more and more work is done wherein technologies play decisive roles, the genre media anthropology meanwhile is consolidated, and so on. In spite of that the anthropological voice still does not thunder in public discourses (exceptions like e.g. David Graeber granted), which is lamented by the profession. Inconsistently an anthropological spill-over into larger and public circles seems to be contained and repressed by the anthropologists themselves. At the same time there are proponents who wholeheartedly embrace our discipline and push it to the forefront. It is significant that Bruno Latour, whose voice definitely is heard widely, not only clearly communicates to be tremendously fond of anthropology, but even suggests a fusion of anthropology and science and technology studies. This way, he hopes, the dichotomy of nature and culture/society, and differentiations between pre-modern, modern, and postmodern, can be transcended. Ultimately interpretations of our world could be gained which are highly uncontaminated by all kinds of -centrisms, and thus would be of the highest value for discourses outside of academia. With the nexus technology, society, and culture as a point of origin the workshop’s aim is to discuss the unique potentials of anthropology to 1) help to understand our technology-drenched world in global, local, and historical dimensions, 2) to communicate this knowledge and to feed it into public discourses, and 3) to prepare students for jobs in this very world—within and without anthropology.

Those interested to present there are hereby invited to send me a proposal (200 words max.) by email, to alexander[dot]knorr[at]lmu[dot]de, before the end of January 2013.