jeweled platypus


wednesday, september 23, 2009
Four batches of images on a theme

Flickr recently released a way to make “galleries”, where you gather up pictures by other people and arrange them into little photo essays with comments. Here are mine.

Blade Runner in San Francisco

I wrote a short response about the geography of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (by Philip K. Dick) for my recent Science Fiction class, and my instructor commented encouragingly. Okay! Here’s textual analysis combined with multimedia nerdery and love for the city.

Bump patterns

Little me spent a long time looking at a copy of M. C. Escher’s Metamorphosis II (in color). These photos show geometrical arrangements transitioning across several different kinds of surfaces, both natural and man-made. I’m a fan of all of them.

Glazed green tile

There are tons of solid and patterned tiles around Santa Barbara, but the light does something else with these glazed bricks. Many of them are in London, which supported some thriving tile manufacturers in the Victorian era.

San Francisco parking

While working on the Blade Runner gallery, I realized again how much of San Francisco I didn’t see during my summers there, even though I spent my weekends walking around as much as possible. Then I saw “No parking Outside this gate in Constant Use” (thanks to Noticings) and remembered all the wonderful signs in the city. I’d like to go back sometime.

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thursday, august 27, 2009
Grids of tubes and wires (the city and the internet)

art by another person
From an artist’s book by Amy Knowles; $16.

A few months ago I wrote an essay about how learning to use the internet is like learning to live in a city. This was for a class where we read urban critics/philosophers/sociologists like Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, and Georg Simmel. They lived in the 19th and 20th centuries and talked about things like: what happens to people when they move to cities, how it feels to live in dense urban centers, and whether “the city” is an imaginary place anyway. Some of their concerns about the experience of mass urbanization are similar to concerns I’ve heard about the experience of mass internet use: dealing with information overload, wandering in a non-linear fashion, learning unfamiliar interfaces, developing less sensitivity to shocking sights, finding connections within fragmented communities, encountering thousands of strangers every day, and acting badly when anonymous.

OK, resemblance between physical and virtual worlds is not surprising. The class description said “The big city is an archetype of the human imagination,” and somewhere else I read that social aspects of the web are modeled on the places where many of its developers, entrepreneurs, and designers live: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, etc. I like those ideas, and I think they’re useful.

A while after I turned in my rambling comparison essay, I found this academic paper with some actual citations: From Flâneur to Web Surfer: Videoblogging, Photo Sharing and Walter Benjamin @ the Web 2.0, by Simon Lindgren in November 2007. Quotes, with comments from me:

Even though the flâneur moves around “in an uncoordinated, fleeting way” due to “the fragmentation of modern life,” he can still “redeem it through his ability to aesthetically link otherwise disparate phenomena.”

[The web surfer can make sense of her hypertext experiences by organizing them into a blog or shared bookmarks.]

Lefebvre’s theory on The Production of Space is…fitting in many respects when it comes to the ways in which web interactants, as well as commercial actors, employ a number of social strategies to render the rooms of cyberspace as physical realities.

[A group of friends keeps in touch throughout the day in a virtual chat room because we all agree that it is a real place where we should show up and talk to each other.]

Sites such as YouTube and flickr are in fact good examples of the temporal and spatial dissolution discussed by a number of postmodern writers…Benjamin addressed similar themes and issues when he analysed nineteenth century Paris as a composite of a thousand eyes and a thousand lenses, all of which acted as screens, reflecting subjects back to themselves as objects.

[Flickr’s geotagging feature collapses many views together on top of coordinate points; Google Street View offers a reflection of ourselves in a shared way.]

It is “almost impossible to summon and maintain good moral character in a thickly massed population where each individual, unbeknownst to all the others, hides in the crowd, so to speak, and blushes before the eyes of no one.”

[We call this the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or more politely, the online disinhibition effect.]

If none of the above made sense, here are some other comparisons of the city to the internet:

Bright Lights, Big Internet (New York Times, July 2009)
“The experience of moving online actually bears quite a few similarities to becoming a New Yorker. Disorienting and seemingly endless…residents of the Internet do not suffer fools, or mince words in belittling them…the presence of an audience causes online residents to style themselves as outsized personae.” [See also: Newcomers Adjust, Eventually, to New York.]
Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City (New York Times, March 2009)
“Like a city, Wikipedia is greater than the sum of its parts; for example, the random encounters there are often more compelling than the articles themselves…Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers…’They wouldn’t last a week if we farmers stopped shipping our food!’”
World-viewing city walking (imomus, March 2009)
“I’m thinking more of the internet as a medium in which you can go for a daily walk, without really doing, or expecting to do, anything significant.”
My own private metropolis (Financial Times, August 2008)
“That freedom to experiment with personae, to play out fantasies of self, once the unique gift of the metropolis, is available on everyone’s laptop.”
Stephen Fry: The internet and Me (BBC News, March 2009)
“But the internet is a city and, like any great city, it has monumental libraries and theatres and museums…there are also slums…but you don’t pull down London because it’s got a red light district.”
The Internet as a City: Thoughts on the Connected Brain (Digital Natives, January 2009)
“Vast expanses to explore, anonymity, a nebulous web of connections, and of course, the many possible distractions…but give newcomers a few months, they’ll be able to navigate the city like any seasoned urban dweller.”
A person I asked (March 2009)
“You end up spending all of your time in like three places.”
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friday, july 31, 2009
Not-so-bad articles of Wikipedia

In the spirit of Best of Wikipedia and Wikipedia Time: the best of wiki, these are some of the more interesting articles that I’ve worked on:

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saturday, july 11, 2009
Learning to see wooden poles

When I’m not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I don’t know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemen’s slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.

Utility pole in Isla Vista Utility pole in Los Angeles

To get from place to place I always walk or look out a car/bus/train window; I don’t know how to drive and don’t feel safe on a bicycle around cars. So I walk a lot, and usually I have something to think about while I’m walking — but if I don’t, and if the sky isn’t too bright, I peer nearsightedly at glossy cylinders tied to wires.

Utility pole in Goleta

I got interested in utility poles in late 2006 after picking a yellowing antiques magazine off a stack in my grandma’s overstuffed house — it had an article about collecting glass insulators, and I was puzzled. I looked at the pictures but couldn’t figure out what these things were. Their collectors didn’t explain; they talked about cataloging varieties and identifying falsely-tinted specimens.

A person's collection of insulators

Later I read more about insulators online, and the fervor of collectors’ websites overwhelmed me a little, but I learned that insulators are devices that sit near the tops of poles to support live wires. Most glass ones have been retired and replaced by ceramic ones, so glass insulators are a beloved collector’s item: produced in a limited quantity, portable, and pretty.

A pole with glass insulators

In December I visited my boyfriend’s uncle’s ranch, which grows junk: rusty vehicles, cow bones, fallen streetlights, and, among the weeds, a pile of ceramic insulators. I took photos up close, admiring the glazed bells. I could have asked to grab a set, but where would I keep such a heavy thing? The pile waits there for me to visit again.

Insulators at the ranch

I like functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better. I get excited about trains and oil wells too, but I don’t see them on my walk to class every day — and they have an amount of built-in spectacle already. Reading about insulators led to noticing a whole ecology of lightning arresters, guy lines, strain insulators, and more.

Part of the Iron Zoo

Some of my friends and I have similar childhood memories: we read Richard Scarry books, where friendly drawings with animal-people explain how an entire town functions, from the paper mill to how the roads are laid; we watched the segment of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that explained a crayon factory; and we built flocks of LEGO houses and cars.

Utility poles on Treasure Island

Those friends are now computer programmers, while I didn’t understand math past the first semester of Algebra II and never took a physics class. I don’t understand electricity at all, but you don’t have to be a zoology student to spot birds. (My friend working on a master’s degree in bird research makes time to practice medieval-style archery.) I’ve stopped for minutes to stare at a lineman up in a bucket, grasping a line with a pole.

More utility poles in Los Angeles

One time I considered waiting until the linemen came down and then politely asking them about what they were fixing, maybe even asking where I could find old broken insulators. But I didn’t think they’d welcome my strange questions, and I knew I had to start walking again — quickly, so I wouldn’t be late for class.

Update: There’s some discussion at Snarkmarket.

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sunday, june 28, 2009
Not quite a summer vacation

a street

Unlike the past three summers working in the Bay Area, I’m staying in Santa Barbara so I can take some more classes. I’ll probably graduate in Fall or Winter quarter.

Here is a chart of most of the classes I’ve taken so far, including my current ones:


The subjects are color-coded; a grey box means a half-credit class (or equivalent) and a black box means a full-credit class. See the 2007 chart for more explanation.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.

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