Tag Archives: technology

more uncanny valleys

Posted a brief item about the uncanny valley as an extensible trope over at Difference Engines.

Posted in 2014, latest | Also tagged |

e-book meets artist’s book


Test booklet produced with Bookleteer software.

One of my purposes with this blog is to promote DIY-oriented websites that enable people to create and acquire art at less-than-astronomical prices and without the intimidation factor or the need for advanced skill sets. I recently learned about a nifty website that solves several of the main obstacles to creating small artist’s books. Bookleteer.com technically belongs to the larger world of print-on-demand publishing populated by the likes of SharedInk, Shutterfly, Blurb, and Lulu, but it takes a quite different tack from those sites. The general approach of POD sites is to offer book templates into which users plug their own text and JPEG images, after which they can order commercially printed, perfect-bound books on nice paper stock for a (comparatively) reasonable price.


Bookleteer booklet in process of construction.

Bookleteer also offers templates, but their goal is to make it easy for someone with just an ordinary inkjet printer and a bunch of digital images to print out and assemble a booklet at home. Essentially, they are simplifying the production of hand-made books rather than helping people gain access to commercial printing.1 Anyone who has ever tried to create a hand-made book knows that it can be surprisingly tricky to get the pages organized in the right way, especially with double-sided printing. For example, in a 4-page booklet bound with a staple down the middle, it is not immediately obvious that pages 1 and 4 would actually be on the same piece of paper. Bookleteer has come up with a way of streamlining this production process for small books. Their templates are set up to create finished books of about 4.25 x 5.5 inches, or one-quarter of a standard 8.5×11-inch piece of paper.2 Each printed sheet has 4 pages on it—half of which are upside down with respect to the other half—and the sheets are folded over to create double-sided pages in the finished book. Particularly clever is their method for assembling the finished book: instead of the traditional staples or sewing, pages are held firmly together with a self-locking variation on tabs-and-slits (as shown in the image at right).

To create a book using the Bookleteer method, you upload your images and text to their website, just as with other POD sites.3 When you are done, they create a print-ready PDF for you to download to your home computer. You then print it out and follow their very straightforward folding, cutting, and insertion instructions to create the final booklet. You can make a complete, finished, self-covered book this way—like my 8-page test booklet shown at the top of this post—or you can print only the inside of the book and add your own cover afterwards. The adventurous can print a book with some blank or half-finished pages and add hand-drawn or collaged elements to make each book unique. The maximum size of a book you can create using the Bookleteer software is 40 pages, including the covers, and you have a choice of either portrait or landscape orientation. Theoretically, you could make even bigger books using their downloaded templates once you figured out the page-order logic necessary to create your own printable PDFs, but my guess is that 40 pages is probably the practical limit for books held together by this slit-binding method.

Bookleteer is a project of a pair of designers based in the United Kingdom, Alice Angus and Giles Lane, who work under the name Proboscis. They have an interesting practice that extends well beyond book design and publishing, reaching out to socially engaged practitioners in a lot of different fields, including the sciences. But they have been working with DIY publishing and the idea of shareable media for quite a long time, expressing a commitment to “playful hybrid digital/material publications combining the tactile pleasures of tangible objects with the ease of sharing via digital media.” Indeed, once you have created a booklet on Bookleteer, you have the option of sharing it with others by way of the Bookleteer ‘library’. One of their latest projects is a publishing wing called the Periodical, in which they attempt to “re-imagine publishing as public authoring.”

I’ve been designing and producting both hand-made and commercially printed books for a couple of decades now, and I’ve never come across a simpler method for creating and sharing small books than what the Bookleteer folks have come up with. Check it out: hand-made books make excellent holiday presents.



1. Bookleteer does also offer professional printing of books created with its software, but the minimum order is 25 books.

2. Bookleteer also has templates for standard European paper sizes.

3. You can also download their templates to create your book in InDesign, after which you upload individual pages back to the Bookleteer website to produce the final printable PDF.


Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , , , , , |


I’m a member of  FemTechnet, a loose network of women involved professionally with technology, feminism, science studies, and related areas. Specifically, I’m part of a subgroup who are spending time working on Wikipedia to add missing material in our areas of expertise. I was very happy to join this group since I’ve been writing and editing Wikipedia entries in technology and art more or less on my own for several years now. Another subgroup of FemTechNet has organized a collaborative open course for 2013-14 across a number of participating colleges and universities on the topic “Dialogues on Feminism and Technology.” This DOOC (distributed open collaborative course) has embedded in its structure a shared pedagogical activity called Storming Wikipedia “designed to write women and feminist scholarship of science and technology back into our web-based cultural archives.” I’m not participating in this DOOC formally, but I am including a Storming Wikipedia unit in one of my fall courses. I’ll be having my students work on new entries for Wikipedia while also reflecting on what kinds of material are inappropriate for that encyclopedia and doing some work with those non-Wikipedian materials.

Storming Wikipedia briefly (and predictably) drew the ire of Fox News, but I imagine a bunch of feminist academics and their students are a pretty low-level target because they seem to have dropped the story almost immediately. Predictably, Fox News got it wrong, framing us as vandals out to “corrupt” Wikipedia rather than just another group of editors with a set of expertises and the same right to edit Wikipedia as every other living person on this planet. The Daily Dot ran a piece that gives a clearer sense of why FemTechNet organized its wikistorming activities in the first place. And Mother Jones also covered the story briefly, running a telling graphic showing the gender distribution of Wikipedia editors (spoiler alert: it skews 85-97% male depending on which English-speaking country you are looking at).

The brilliance of Wikipedia still resides in the fact that anyone can contribute to it—although learning the interface and the community standards is a bit of a pain, there is no other intellectual resource of such magnitude and social importance that I am aware of that is not a closed shop. (OK, maybe Linux.)  The Digital Media + Learning hub at UC Irvine’s Humanities Research Institute has a useful post here on how to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool. It links to some good resources developed by the highly experienced Wikipedia editor and Occidental College professor Adrianne Wadewitz. FemTechNet has wikistorming resources here and here as well. But teaching is just one way to approach expanding Wikipedia and its editor base. I encourage everyone I meet to try their hand at editing Wikipedia at least once. Almost certainly, something you consider important is still missing from that bit-heap of knowledge fragments. You can stand on the sidelines carping until someone else gets around to it—if they ever do—or you can write it yourself.


Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , , |

hammer and anvil, miniaturized

grommeter_1484-900One of our early discussions on “Far-Flung follows function” has been how to make and hang a 9×12-foot projection screen that will be visible from both sides. Most of the discussion has been around different possibilities for attaching the PVC screen material to its frame: staples, tape, clips, grommets, combination, other? So I was prompted to dig out my old grommeting set, something I haven’t used in a long time.

As I took the photo at left to share with my collaborators,  I was reminded of just how primitive the technology feels to use, even though industrial precision methods are employed to create the tools, and sometimes even more modern materials  like plastic are used for the grommets themselves. It’s basically a miniaturization of the hammer and anvil concept: a striker and a strike plate, with a third item—called a punch—to transfer the force of the blow more precisely and evenly. (This photo shows just the punch and the anvil; BYO hammer and grommets).

If you’ve never done this before, the basic idea is to seat one half of the grommet in the circular depression in the anvil, lay over it the layer of fabric being grommeted, lay on top of that the other half of the grommet, seat the anvil in the hole, and give a mighty whack. The two halves of the grommet are designed to lock permanently together under the force of the blow. Refinements include prepunching a hole in the fabric to avoid rips, but the process hardly ever gets more complicated than this. You can get mechanized grommet presses, but even these look like early Victorian technology and mostly run on arm power rather an electricity, so they aren’t much of an improvement on the hammer-punch-anvil setup.

Grommets are a fairly ubiquitous kind of eyelet: think shower curtains, boat sails, the lace holes on your shoes. But they weren’t widely used until the 20th century; before that, the reinforcement that grommets offer tended to be hand-sewn into fabric (like that other most familiar eyelet, the buttonhole). Sometimes they were reinforced with a hidden, oversewn metal or wooden ring, but that was comparatively rare. The word itself came into the English language in the 1720s as a term for a ring or circlet of rope; it didn’t come to signify a metal eyelet for another century and a half. So in the modern meaning of the term, we’re looking at an 18th century technology that hasn’t been substantially improved despite remaining widespread. Grommeting is one of those technologies that have been stable for so long we no longer think of them as technologies, until a random photo lets us see both the ancientness of form and the refinement of modern manufacture.


Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged |

beginning with a playground

chalk drawing We are now one week into our residency on my fall project, the new performance work “Far-Flung follows function.” The lead artist on this is Ursula Endlicher; I’ve signed on as both a general collaborator and a performer (more about that later). My longtime collaborator Robert Allen is the movement director of the piece and also a performer.

We’ve spent the last week in the Experimental Medial Performance Lab at UC Irvine working with the physical organization of the space. The xMPL has no permanently defined stage and audiences areas: it’s a big black box. So you have to begin with the basics: Where will the performers be working? Where will the set pieces go? Projectors, speakers, lights? The audience is going to be circulating freely through the space rather than seated, so that has to be borne in mind also.

Almost the first thing that happened, then, was that Ursula sketched out her floor plan with those giant pieces of tubular chalk that kids love so much. The black-painted wooden floor became a giant record of drawing and redrawing: pentimento city. At the end of the first day I took some photographs and created the digital collage above. Yet another redrawing, and far from the last—we are now slowing replacing the chalk with vinyl tape to create an abstract motherboard. More on that in a later post.

Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , , |

what’s wrong with you?

Skype login messageA while back, after updating Skype, I discovered that I would now be greeted each time I logged in with the following extremely annoying message: “Your contacts have not been very active recently.” My initial reaction—possibly the same as yours—was: so what? It took a few seconds before I became annoyed by the fact that this piece of software thinks I need this bit of information. The implication is that the inactivity of my contacts is a problem. But what is the problem, exactly? Does Skype think I am incapable of keeping track of my Skype contacts on my own? That I am a lonely shut-in who needs a nudge to reach out to other people? That I have lame friends?

And what am I supposed to do with this information? Bug people I know to spend more time online? Spend more time online myself? Well, perhaps that is the general idea, since the second part of the message suggests updating my Skye status or connecting to Facebook. Fine, I understand that Skype wants me to spend more time using their software. But I don’t want to be prodded about it every time I log in. All they’ve done with this message is ensure that I will think dark thoughts about their software and their software engineers every time I use Skype. As aversion conditioning, an undoubted success. As social media, an epic fail.

Posted in 2013, latest | Also tagged , |


txtThat’s not a typo in the header; I’m suggesting a new term might be needed for those people who are not simple technophobes—afraid of any advanced technology—but are instead resistant to or disdainful of new technology. One reason I feel the term is called for is that I have lately been noticing a distinct difference in the way the two phobias manifest. Prompted by feelings of inadequacy or a sense of insecurity—arising from lack of knowledge or perceived threat to social standing—technophobes tend to project this onto technology in the form of overt rage. Apocalyptic doomsaying is the most common form: Technology X will destroy our future! (Golden Age Corollary: Things were so much better before Technology X!)

Techneophobes, while quite probably spurred by the same sense of personal inadequacy, disguise it by assuming a lofty position from which the new technology is made to appear as insignificant as possible. My thinking on this was prompted by the following statement by Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer, which I came across in Dahlia Lithwick’s column on Slate:

I had to have a tweeting thing because I was very interested in the Iranian revolution, remember when they just had this uprising a little over a year ago. … I sat there fascinated because you could look through the tweeting and see what was going on. The only way you could do that was go through the tweet or the tweeter.

I greatly admire Lithwick’s lucid columns—her rare ability to make intelligible the high-stakes arcana of Supreme Court proceedings—but I part company with her on thinking Breyer’s take on Twitter “adorable.” Even while I accept that he may be out of touch with much of the day-to-day reality of his culture, I don’t buy that someone with a legal intelligence that keen couldn’t get the basic terminology correct. I smell a techneophile putdown here: who needs to know if it’s a tweet or a tweeter since it’s too trivial to matter?

I probably wouldn’t have thought to write this up if I hadn’t noticed the same phenomenon a week or two earlier on John Stewart, in a show where he was adopting the classic techneophobic pose of the old fogey: something along the lines of ‘gosh what is that Twitter thang anyhow, I just leave it to the kids’ (nervous laughter). Leaving aside the fact that the ‘I’m too old to learn that stuff’ dodge reinforces ageist thinking, why does acknowledgment of ignorance have to be accompanied by a smackdown (Twitter, suitable for kids)? Stewart’s brilliant political satire rests on his being up-to-date on many things, but he generally seems pretty comfortable about the stuff he doesn’t know about—some new book or show or trend or idea that hasn’t happened to come his way yet—as long as it’s not new technology.

I suspect that techneophobia may be a position to which some technophiles convert as they age—for whatever reason, they are no longer in a position to keep up with new technologies as they did when younger, so in the absence of being able to maintain the preferred expert posture of the technophile, they take on the dismissive stance of the techneophobe.

In any case, I acknowledge that I am skating way ahead of my skimpy data here. Call it food for thought or a hypothesis that calls for further investigation… or just a bit of fun with neologizing.


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , |

Evidence of Evidence

"Evidence of Evidence" announcementThere has been radio silence on this blog of late because I’ve been immersed in preparing a small exhibition at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Evidence of Evidence opened Sunday March 20 and runs ran until March 30th. It’s the second in a series of 10 speed-curated shows that the ICI is putting on in which curators are given a very short time—10 days, start to finish—to assemble something from the archives. Knowing what a challenge this would be, I chose to work with a partner, the writer Ruth Coppens.

"Box Furniture" cover

cover of Brigham's book "Box Furniture"

We took on the project because both of us are fascinated with archives, those idiosyncratic collections assembled in honor of memory that so often seem to transmute over time into semi-organized taxonomies of oblivion. Although we started the project with a blank slate, we had a joint belief in the certainty of finding something that would interest both of us. Something that might not seem to be much of anything at first glance, but would reveal itself as evidence for a larger project. We were looking, in effect, for evidence of evidence—the title we ultimately gave the show.

Most of our early finds turned out to be dead ends or, at best, ‘possibles’. Eventually, serendipitously, we stumbled on a  hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal in which was an article entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes” by one Louise Brigham. This proved to be our Ariadne’s thread.

Louise Brigham, design for a quadruple desk made out of packing crates

Brigham was writing about a system she worked out for building entire suites of furniture out of recycled materials—specifically, packing crates. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham before, or of Box Furniture, the book she wrote about her system. Or perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a small handful of recent articles that also claim her as a pioneer of sustainable design (see here and here). She did not even have a Wikipedia page.

So Ruth and I decided to build our exhibition around Louise Brigham: who she was, where she came from, how she fits into early modern design, what happened to her. We dug out the contemporary newspaper articles, we got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar), and we reconstructed as much of her life as we were able to in a little over a week. Louise Brigham, Wikipedia entry

Enormous gaps remain, and Ruth and I are now working on an article that we hope will add something to the picture. Meanwhile, we have written a Wikipedia page for Brigham, and we invite anyone in the Los Angeles area to visit our exhibition at the ICI while it’s up. The exhibition includes “The Digger,”  a short text that Ruth wrote, inspired by Brigham’s work with abject materials that were at high risk, by their flimsy nature, of being erased from history.

There is also a forthcoming limited-edition ‘catalog’ for the exhibition. For this series of ICI exhibitions, the catalog is an existing book given a new dustcover and a set of photographic inserts. Under the dustcover is a book that has been important to both Ruth and myself, one that bears an affinity for the subject of our exhibition: Lewis Hyde’s wonderful Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. We chose it because in thinking about Louise Brigham’s work with discarded materials, and her own near-erasure from the historical record, we found ourselves discussing what Hyde calls cultural dirt work, those means by which “order deals with its own exclusions.” The photographs inserted into the book are drawn from work in the show, and themselves comprise a miniature, original artist’s portfolio. I’ll post an update when these catalogs become available—as of this writing, they are still in production.

For both of us, delving into Brigham’s life turned into a close-up look at the messy role that evidence—and its absence—plays in the formation of those cultural myths we like to call history.

Note: I’ve written another brief item on Louise Brigham over at Difference Engines, a techno-feminist blog I contribute to.


Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

obscure technologies

Hupfeld automated violin

Hupfeld automated violin (ca. 1908-1930)

One of the things I most enjoy about reading memoirs and contemporary accounts of times long past is the way they tend to throw up nuggets of the unknown—details of daily life that somehow escaped being included in the standard view of an era, or that have otherwise eluded me. As someone interested in the passage of technologies from new to old to obscure, I tend especially to notice details relating to techne.

Recently, I’ve been reading O America: When You and I Were Young, a memoir by Italian (and quasi American) journalist Luigi Barzini about his youth in 1920s New York. Two passages in particular jumped out at me. In one, as he was talking about the experience of going to the movies, he had this to say about the music that accompanied the then-silent films:

“The picture was drowned in deafening music, produced by an amazing automatic machine, which looked like a tall glass showcase, lit from inside. It was filled with many upright violins from which fast bows traveling in a circle drew a stream of melodies, surely an American invention.” (p. 64)

I had heard of player pianos but never of a player violin, yet it turns out they were produced by several firms in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to the Grassi Museum für Musikinstrumente in Leipzig:

“Between 1884 and 1930, Leipzig produced 28 patents and 38 registered patterns for mechanically operated string instruments. However, few of these ideas were realized. The Pentaphon bowed zither (POLYPHON) was popular for some time, but the automated violins by DIENST and POPPER hardly sold. One exception was the Violina made by HUPFELD; genuine violins with revolving horsehair bows (circular bows) were a highlight in the production of automated instruments and hence remained in demand until about 1930.”

Barzini’s assumption that the automated violin he saw was “an American invention” may thus be wrong—from his description it could well have been the Hupfeld ‘Violina’ pictured above. His pronouncement of a sure origin in America could have been prompted by his evident fascination with American inventiveness and his tendency to view it as supreme above that of all other lands.

The other remark that stopped me was a single sentence towards the end of a paragraph comparing American domestic interiors—”expensive, shining, efficient, and belonging to the future”—with those of his native  Italy:

“The electric light vanished inside the walls (in Italy at that time elegant braids, covered in silk in the color of the wallpaper, ran openly, gracefully suspended like festoons from little porcelain cups).” (p. 25)

interior of a loft

interior of a loft with exposed ductwork

The silk coverings for unsightly wires, the “festoons,” the careful matching to wallpaper: all of this speaks—as Barzini no doubt intended it to—of a quintessentially Victorian mindset extending into the 1920s. And yet—since the Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and continuing through loft culture to today’s green-everything movement, the idea of exposed technology has once again taken hold. We are festooning our wires and even our plumbing across our floors and walls and ceilings. We are perhaps not matching it to the latex paints that have long since displaced wallpaper, but we are certainly color-coordinating it. Slick, modernist-elegant plastic skins or wide metal conduits have replaced those silken casings. But there is clearly a sense in which the style Barzinin deplored as anachronistic in the 1920s has come around again in a modified form to the forefront of technology.

I wonder about the “little porcelain cups,” though. Did they serve both as insulating points where the wires emerged from the mains and as anchor points? But what then was the purpose of the cup shape? I confess I am stuck with a peculiar mental image of electricity pouring delicately, fluidly out of the silk-clad wires into these temporary holding cups before being sucked invisibly into the next set of tiny pipes.

Note: The Barzini quotes here are from the 1966 Harper & Row edition of O America. The 1985 Penguin edition is more available.


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , |