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.


who is exchanged?

zeph’s pop culture quiz #44
Who is exchanged?
Here is a fine noir Cold War scenario. Right at the Iron Curtain government officials are waiting for an exchange of prisoners. But who is exchanged?
    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 (03 October 2012):
Again Kueperpunk did it, as it seems on first glance. The screencap was taken early into ‘Who?’ (Gold 1973). Allied government officials are waiting for the scientist Dr. Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova) to cross ‘the line’—the Iron Curtain—and return from the soviet to the allied zone. Among those waiting is the security agent Sean Rogers (Elliott Gould). At the negotiated time a man indeed comes over, but he has been turned into a cyborg. His left arm and his head now are made of metal.
Joseph Bova as 'Dr. Martino' in 'Who?' (Gold 1973)

Dr. Martino (Joseph Bova) escorted out of the soviet zone by two american Marines, early on in ‘Who?’ (Gold 1973).

The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Algis Budrys (1958). Here is the begining of the novel, describing the scene depicted in the screencaps:

It was near the middle of the night. The wind came up from the river, moaning under the filigreed iron bridges, and the weathercocks on the dark old buildings pointed their heads north.
    The Military Police sergeant in charge had lined up his receiving squad on either side of the cobbled street. Blocking the street was a weathered concrete gateway with a black-and-white-striped wooden rail. The headlights of the MP super-Jeeps and of the waiting Allied Nations Government sedan glinted from the raised shatterproof riot visors on the squad’s varnished helmets. Over their heads was a sign, fluorescing in the lights:
    In the parked sedan, Shawn Rogers sat waiting with a man from the ANG Foreign Ministry beside him. Rogers was Security Chief for this sector of the ANG administered Central European Frontier District. He waited patiently, his light green eyes brooding in the dark.
    The Foreign Ministry representative looked at his thin gold wristwatch. “They’ll be here with him in a minute.” He drummed his fingertips on his briefcase. “If they keep to their schedule.” […]
    The war was in all the world’s filing cabinets. The weapon was information: things you knew, things you’d found out about them, things they knew about you. You sent people over the line, or you had them planted from years ago, and you probed. Not many of your people got through. Some of them might. So you put together the little scraps of what you’d found out, hoping it wasn’t too garbled, and in the end, if you were clever, you knew what the Soviets were going to do next. […]
    Out beyond the gateway, two headlights bloomed up, turned sideward, and stopped. The rear door of a Tatra limousine snapped open, and at the same time one of the Soviet guards went over to the gate and flipped the rail up. The Allied MP sergeant called his men to attention.
    Rogers and the Foreign Ministry representative got out of their car.
    A man stepped out of the Tatra and came to the gateway. He hesitated at the border and then walked forward quickly between the two rows of MP’s.
    “Good God!” the Foreign Ministry man whispered.
    The lights glittered in a spray of bluish reflection from the man in the gateway. He was mostly metal. (Budrys 1958: part 1, chpt. 1)

A bit later, the ‘man with the steel mask’ has been brought to an allied facility, Rogers has to report to his superior by telephone. When he is asked if everything went all right with Martion, Rogers answers no, and asks for an emergency team comprising experts on miniature mechanical devices, surveillance, and a psychologist. Finally Mr. Deptford, Rogers’ superior asks: ‘Rogers—did Martino come over the line tonight or didn’t he?’ Rogers hesitates briefly and then can only answer: ‘I don’t know’ (Budrys 1958: part 1, chpt. 2). And indeed the whole story unfolding is about the question if the technologically enhanced man who came over the line is Martino or not.
Cover art for the 1968 Lancer Books edition of 'Who?' (Budrys 1958) by Frank Kelly Freas

Cover art by Frank Kelly Freas for the 1968 Lancer Books edition of ‘Who?’ (Budrys 1958). Mind the circuit diagram backdrop, graphically trying to integrate electronical with biological elements. Budrys dedicated the novel like that: ‘For Frank Kelly Freas, who first created Martino, and for Walter Fultz, who saw him last.’

The movie is quite faithful to the novel, nevertheless there are differences. In the novel Dr. Martino had worked in a laboratory in ‘the West’ which was located close to the Iron Curtain. Quite at the beginning of the novel this already is criticized by a representative of the foreign ministry: ‘Why the devil did we give Martino a laboratory so near the border in the first place?’ (Budrys 1958: part 1, chpt. 1) An accident with subsequent explosion took place there. In the immediate wake of it a soviet team from right across the border was faster to recover Martino than the allied rescue team. That way he came into the soviet zone, heavily injured. His cyborg parts are the result of the soviet scientist’s effort to save him. In the movie the laboratory incident has been replaced by a car accident close to the border, resulting from a very B-movie version of a car chase.
    From a 1958 perspective the novel is set in a probable near future, not just because of the obviously advanced soviet technology. In the world of ‘Who?’ the Soviet Union has fused with the People’s Republic of China and the so called Free World has fused to a megastate as well. From a 2012 retrospective it’s an alternate history, of course. For the 1973 movie version this setting has been toned down, and the historical world map has been retained.
    All in all both, novel and movie, are fusions of a psychological cold war espionage thriller spy game and a cyberpunkish coin of science fiction. So ‘Who?’ perfectly fits into the cyberpunk discourse.

BUDRYS, ALGIS. 1958. Who? New York: Pyramid Books.
GOLD, JACK. 1973. Who? (aka Roboman aka The man with the steel mask) [motion picture]. Los Angeles: Allied Artists Pictures.