jeweled platypus


wednesday, january 23, 2008
The aesthetics of squiggles

I downloaded these images in October 2001 from The Wallpaper Machine (you have to highlight the text since it doesn’t work anymore), by Roy Williams and Bruce Sears:

The Wallpaper Machine was a magical combination of nerdiness (reaction-diffusion systems) and more nerdiness (web 1.0 graphical tiled backgrounds). I had no idea how it worked, but I liked how the tiles looked and used them as backgrounds for the first version of something that eventually turned into this website. Now I’m a little older and can read more about reaction-diffusion systems for context even though I still don’t understand much:

Suprisingly complex structures arise out of very simple equations — that is the essence of Alan Turing’s idea. ¶ In this case the equations have been solved on a torus, which means you could use this or one of the many other examples of evolution for tiling the screen on a Web page.

This is a related image from Roy Williams that is pretty in its bright scientific way:

In the middle of the mathy Wikipedia article, there’s another eye-catching group:

And these patterns are found in birds and fish.

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saturday, january 05, 2008
Peruvian art and some tentacles

A few days ago, my friend and I were wandering around the American Museum of Natural History when I spied a reproduction of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, the place where archaeologists dug up the pre-Columbian earspool I call the “jeweled platypus”:

a side view

a close-up of the three earspools

I learned and wrote a lot about the jeweled platypus last June, so this exhibit was cool to see. Some of the other nice things I saw at the museum:

it says 'do not want' and is labeled 'ceramic bottle modeled in form of a standing feline, decorated with resist-painted motif, gallinaro style, peru'


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tuesday, january 01, 2008
Books are permanent, or at least durable

Note: I have some related bookmarks if you find this post TL;DR.

a pretty artist's book that questions some assumptions about pages and bindings

On Twitter a month or so ago, Vaguery asked “What is a book, besides a conceit?” so I responded, “a couple weeks from now, i could send you my Book Manifesto, the final assignment for this class: [Texts in/and/of Transition: Theories of the Book]”. He said “¶#1 had me interested. ¶#2 had me wondering if we were thinking about the same things in a translatable way.” My assignment turned into a way to answer him; this is a version of what I turned in.

Vaguery (William Tozier) sometimes talks about about scanning out-of-copyright books, which I’m guessing he does to preserve them and make them easier to access, transforming piles of old paper into sets of images and text files that anyone can download and read and appropriate and alter. By removing the folds of a book, laying it flat to copy it into loose-bound digital files, he gives that book a longer intellectual life — a more permanent existence.

My online friends and my friends in literature classes talk with different jargon, but they share a certain amount of anxiety about books. I think they’re seeing the dominant intellectual media shift from paper to screens, which shows up on social websites when we argue about the Kindle and in class when we discuss the nostalgic smell of paper. We worry because books are the most durable way we have to store language, and there are no books inside a computer. I think Vaguery might be wondering what happens to a book when he turns it from paper to bits. Is it still a book? What is a book, anyway?

After asking his question, Vaguery also said, “A book is not words. A book is not pages. A book is typography, and weight, and flow.” In “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument” (1895), Stéphane Mallarmé says a book is the foldings of its pages and “their thickness when they are piled together; for then they form a tomb in miniature for our souls”. But a book needs no typography, no weight, no flow, no folds, no thickness. It is not a tomb. Those are all ways of saying that a book is permanent. A book can be a group of JPG scans of unintelligible handwriting, like the Voynich manuscript viewed thousands of times as a Flickr set. The heavy folded-paper version is rare and expensive; its online incarnation is free of cost and alive with comments yet still gives pretty much the same information to a reader.

a peacock! from an old manuscript

The important part of “bookness” is language stored permanently. Language and permanence take different forms, but it always comes back to that.

In San Francisco on summer mornings, I bought books at sidewalk yard sales for dollars or quarters. Once I walked by one of those sidewalk spots later that day and saw several of those books laid out by themselves on the sidewalk in the dark. I picked up another one and took it home. I think the sellers threw away the similarly neglected old shoes, magazines, and half-broken electronics, but they held some respect for those unwanted books as little piles of information that might be useful to somebody even if their covers sat on the rough sidewalk for a while. People tend not to throw books away lightly.

Books without covers (or some other kind of binding) are unprotected books in danger of disintegrating. I’ve read a lot of mass-market paperbacks that say on the copyright page, “If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as ‘unsold or destroyed’ to the publisher, and neither the author nor the published has received payment for this ‘stripped book.’” Destroyed! Stripped! Those books declare that they are no longer really books if their protective bindings have been removed, and they’re right. Disintegrated books are piles of paper that get scattered and forgotten.

In high school I once left a fraying yellow paperback on a lunch table while I went to go talk to somebody, and when I came back, the book was in pieces on the ground. The people sitting there saw my face and apologized — they were just playing with it — and we picked up the pieces and I organized them back together. I never finished reading it; I had to put rubber bands around it to throw it in my backpack, and it sort of fell apart when I tried to open it anyway.

A different example: a few months ago, the New York Times said “ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, [are] raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa.”

But the permanence of a book does not just come from the longevity of its binding and paper. It also comes from lots of copies: sometimes in the form of scribes, sometimes printing presses, sometimes publishers who put out tenth and eleventh editions, and sometimes peer-to-peer filesharing networks. Librarians call this Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. It’s a networked, rhizomatic form of permanence, and it’s one way in which Vaguery is maintaining the bookness of his books. He, like the converters of the Voynich manuscript, lets people obtain a new copy of those old illustrations every time they refresh those pages in their web browsers, making unlimited copies limited by new restraints and challenges to permanence (digital rights management and “other laws of cyberspace”) but not hierarchical paper bindings anymore.

the binding of an old book as palimpsest

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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