Reflections on Chef’s Table – Massimo

I was watching the first episode of Chef’s Table, on Massimo‘s Italian restaurant, how he has become a national treasure, despite early on being considered treasonous by traditionalists. His creative energy and artistry is palpable; reminding me of the Italian Engineering professors I encountered while working administration in a Computational Engineering department. The professor I supported was from New York and would host professors from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Norway. They would often go to local modern Italian trattorias and coffeehouses for brainstorming sessions. They were some of the most energetic, imaginative people outside of artists I ever met.

Photo by Farideh Sadeghin c/o Saveur

I try not to delve into politics on this blog, but I am very concerned. We may be losing our grip on the very engine that made America a leader in science, technology and innovation with our current administration. There’s a great three part program on Netflix right now about three cities….Vienna 1908, Paris in the 1928’s and New York in the 1951’s. Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds. New York took over the spot as the center for new art and creativity in large part because of the great European diaspora after WWII. We can thank this for the introduction of cafes to America and the energy of New York unlocked the potential of an entire generation of artists and writers.  Similarly, Americans brought enormous creativity to Paris during the 1920’s, as did artists from Japan.

There is a growing ferment in the world that would have countries lock themselves down, despite the fact that acts of terrorism are more often occurring with radicalized, mentally ill citizens. Economic anxiety and policies of austerity are causing birth rates to drop…triggering fears amid white Europeans and Americans that their time is waning, giving rise to supremacist movements. Yet little attention is paid to labor issues, living wage issues, mental health issues, education issues.

Populations are electing governments that promise to close countries off from immigrants while they continue to starve supportive sectors like education, heath, housing, sciences, the arts. All these efforts fuel the fires that could extinguish Western Civilization and its potential rather than preserve it….or develop it! Where will the next great center of science and the arts be? Could be Dubai, Oslo or Hong Kong.

We devote our budget to fighting wars on ‘terrorism’…but without support for infrastructure, science, housing, arts, education….where will our next engineers, artists or talented chefs come from…what are we fighting for?

Post-Industrial Dystopic Roots in Colonial Hong Kong


When asked to imagine a post-industrial, urban dystopia, Westerners may summon images from Bladerunner, Neuromancer, or Ghost in a Shell. Backdrops of crumbling hyper-density, juxtapositions of poverty and neon, advanced technology and decaying urban infrastructure.

We may imagine humans living like colonies of ants within anarchic, decentralized structures covered in graffiti, filled with crime and the smells of laundry and street food. If asked to point to exact cultural locations, we would  think of Tokyo or Hong Kong based upon the films, anime and books mentioned above.

What is it about those cities that brought those qualities to mind, especially as these are already historicized, locked away in 1980’s cyberpunk nostalgia? These cities are now likely cleaner, filled with high rises instead of slums, Still, these images persist due to the powerful work of artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers. Where did it all come from? What were the roots of this post-industrial dystopia and why does it still touch people? What meaning does it all hold for us now in the 21st century…a time of luxury condos and sterile interiors?

Liam Wong, a graphic designer in the video game industry has come to enjoy fame with his photographs of Tokyo on Instagram. Citing influence from Ridley Scott‘s Bladerunner he tells of how he fell in love with Tokyo as his romantically filtered nighttime neon photographs attest. 

While looking at his work I reflect on my favorite post-war Japanese photographers who also photographed Tokyo at night, capturing this urban, dreamlike underbelly. Photographers like Daido Moriyama, or the terribly under-rated Osamu Kanemura whose disjointed, black and white images of post-industrial, post-war Tokyo couldn’t embody the dystopic imagination more. With rare collections with names like Shockhammer or Spider’s Strategy, they capture the darker, industrial aesthetic that is so different than works on Paris for example. Tokyo emerged from devastation after the war and built itself up in a hyper-modernizing pace as an amalgamation of both industry and pre-modern, Japanese culture. What we in the west see as an exotic juxtaposition actually carries deeper resonance for those in Asia.

This brings us to another city with a relationship between modernizing forces, cultural retention and change:  Kowloon City in Hong Kong.  Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto captured this infamous locale in his works from 1987.  Renowned for his photographs of demolished buildings he carried his expertise at capturing in black and white the detailed layering and texture of industrial decay. Kowloon City, as seen in this footage or Japanese explorers is really interesting  as the creative team highlights attitudes urban Japanese have toward space, density and collections that differ from those in the West who might focus primarily on blight, neglect, and code violations. A longer documentary explains the history of Kowloon City, as one rooted in Chinese resistance to British rule, of creating a self-sufficient city of sorts, albeit one lacking in first world amenities. However, Kowloon City holds powerfully nostalgic value for many 20th century East Asians, as their worlds underwent changes from Colonialism and growing Capitalism. It was an incubator in many ways, a place of liminal transitions, a blurring of post-war ‘village’ with the dark underbelly of industrial urbanism.

When Hong Kong gained its independence and became prosperous, Kowloon City became a blemish from its past, and the government soon set upon demolishing it over a period of many years. Prior to its erasure many architectural and design students from Japan as well as New York rushed to document what they could of this unique walled city. Its impact upon the modern imagination persisted, soon providing a backdrop from everything from kung fu crime movies to science fiction and video games. The anime artist Mamoru Oshii cites it as the basis for his imaginative backdrop in Ghost in a Shell.   The Japanese were so intrigued by Kowloon City that they created a three-story theme park in Tokyo replicating everything they could to preserve its cultural and architectural trace. The documentary footage linked here contains interviews with former residents, historians, artists and designers, all testifying to impact that city had upon post-colonial consciousness and memory.


Future of Gaming and Digital Scholarship

“The Most Dangerous Gamer”

“Never mind that they’re now among the most lucrative forms of entertainment in America, video games are juvenile, silly, and intellectually lazy. At least that’s what Jonathan Blow thinks. But the game industry’s harshest critic is also its most cerebral developer, a maverick bent on changing the way we think about games and storytelling. With his next release, The Witness, Blow may cement his legacy—or end his career. In a multibillion-dollar industry addicted to laser guns and carnivorous aliens, can true art finally flourish.”

“I think the mainstream game industry is a &%$&-up den of mediocrity,” he told me. “There are some smart people wallowing in there, but the environment discourages creativity and strength and rigor, so what you get is mostly atrophy.”

Myself – I’m into museum studies, digital curation, digital archiving, physical archives….and to a lesser extent gaming. But I was once very hooked.  It’s the storytelling, participation and interaction, problem-solving, exploration, information organizing and collecting…all those drives are powerful not just for learning – but for collaborative learning and knowledge-production.

While there is a brilliant but lonely genius to the games of Jonathan Blow…there is something different at play with the studio – – something that connects to and inspires cognitive activity beyond solitary puzzle-solving…

When I think of what is stored in archival repositories like the Harry Ransom Center – and so many other museums – I think about the possibilities of bridging the power of interactive ‘gaming’ with the exploration of Art and Archives. When I recall powerful museum exhibits that transformed me… I think, what can be done to carry gaming further? I am certain that we are only at the beginning, the first steps of realizing what these techological ‘toys’ and digitization methods can ‘do’ for our creative records. We are in an age where there is a simultaneous need to preserve and to integrate knowledge so that we can solve so many of humanity’s problems. The evolution of gaming may hold the key.


Techno-diversity: toward an ecology of (social) networks

In debating the brewing “war” between Facebook, Twitter and GooglePlus it dawned on me that these services are really rather different. It would make greater sense for them to focus on and develop their strengths rather than race to homogenize themselves into identically mediocre platforms.

Twitter does something very unique and the kind of data dynamic that results from Twitters model, the way in which data flows in its network, is very different than that of Facebook because Facebook has primarily been a “walled garden.”  With the advent of groups, news pages, fan/business/institutional pages, this has become less so…but the interaction model is still very different than that of Twitter.  Facebook offers its non-person content files a different sense of “place” – something more static that can more easily collect threads of user content.  Twitter is “faster” and far more impermanent. This is not a better or a worse thing, just different.

Google Plus looks to offer a potentially unique blending of the two. Perhaps this is part of what Facebook is upset about….but one of GooglePlus’ strongest draws so far is its superior social filtering features – the intuitive and usable “Circles.”  See, users liked the ability to post within a walled garden…but we wanted to create rooms.  Facebook’s “lists” (among many other privacy features) were labryinthian nightmares.  But Facebook still has a world of content on there that it should develop ways to respect and protect (enabling searchability, the ability to tag and archive content) rather than trying to run after other services going “Me too!” and cursing the ingenuity of others. If Facebook doesn’t want to go the way of Yahoo’s mistreatment of Flickr or Delicious….it should pull its CEOs out of the parties and think hard about the Information Curation questions from the point of view of its Users (not its commercial sponsors).

I think there could be lots to learn from other network models that had advantages, but suffered executive hubris and neglect.  MySpace was a great site for small businesses and musicians.  Why? Let’s think about this…what could they do on MySpace that they could not do on Facebook?  I’ll touch on some of this later in this post, but feel free to chime in.…..There is a great amount of content on  What were the drawbacks in terms of Information Architecture….how did not succeed?  I am not talking about funding or policies..I’m talking primary about Information Architectural models. What was it about that made it “free-er” seeming than Facebook? What was off-putting?

And then there’s Livejournal. I could devote an entire post at least to the lessons we can learn from LJ.  There are many great features it has.  There are surely drawbacks as well.

My primary point however is that all of these need not try to be identical to each other. Yes, they could learn a lot from each other…but it is also good to have choice.  I enjoy Twitter in a different way than Facebook or GooglePlus.  If the latter two could evolve to pick up some of the archiving/search/usability features of LiveJournal….or allow for content promotion (while respecting artists’ content-ownership rights) like MySpace or Flickr….or allow for deep levels of cultural content like….We could really enrich the online cultural environment in ways that 1) in two months or two years content won’t be lost and 2) users could retain ownership of (or at least more easily control) their content rather than be merely providing free consumer research and promotional images and copy.

Facebook/Google+ Wish list

I’m enjoying the migration of personal/professional contacts over to GooglePlus this week and will soon document my thoughts regarding its difference from Facebook, but for now, there are features both networks glaringly do not offer.

I wish that Facebook or GooglePlus had social-bookmarking buttons to or for example, like published news sites offer.  It would be especially helpful if one is checking one’s feed during a time when one does not have the liberty to read an article, but wishes to flag it for later reading.

I also wish that there was a mechanism like the  ‘memories’ function in Livejournal to save (and tag!) memorable posts. That Facebook has been popular for the past 4 years and one still cannot tag, archive, search or export posts like Livejournal is pretty sad. I don’t know how much Google+ will offer in this regard.  I suspect that between these technical limitations and their ‘we own your content’  TOS,  there might be an uptick in people writing in blogs and using Twitter/FB/G+ for merely social chat and link-sharing.

But yes, there is no digital archiving function in these social networks (at least not personal archiving), nor can one backup one’s content. The lack of any real search or backup for all the other kinds of non-person content (fan pages, groups, institutional and business pages) seems a great risk for content management and data preservation. The librarian in me is bothered by this considerably.  Twitter is (in theory) searchable and is also currently backed up by the Library of Congress. So far the only ones we know is crawling and saving data from Facebook is the NSA.  Google? I have greater expectations for you. Don’t go the Farmville route.

Interactive Narratives for Digital Humanities Gaming

As I witness my 6 year old’s engagement in games like Zombie Farm, with its complex rules and scenarios, I reflect on the tremendous cultural holdings of libraries, museums and archives and wonder how can we engage the next generation in this material? How can we make learning using archives and collections something that can meaningfully compete with traditional gaming narratives stemming from fantasy, horror and science fiction? What are the constructive elements that take content that is scientific, relates to premodern folklore or modern day fears…and translates it to an engaging game?  For decades the gaming industry has rested upon the work done by the pioneers of table-top gaming (D&D, etc.) and arcade games.  In the meantime, educational interactive gaming has not caught up, reamaining trapped in tired metaphors of flash-cards and treasure hunts.

A number of creative and analytical things are on my mind right now….I am in the initially messy stage of compiling issues, factors, observations, possibilities and visions. I am spurred on first by the amazing work of Game Researcher Jane McGonigal who persevered through recovery from a brain injury by creating a game out of it…a game that could prove useful for anyone dealing with recovery (from quitting smoking to perhaps behavioral plans for children with special needs):

I am additionally moved by Ali Carr-Chellman’s TED talk about how to re-engage boys in learning through interactive gaming:

It then occurs to me…the metaphors in video games are similar to sports, scouts and to martial arts. They are about ‘leveling up’ (belts, badges, etc.), having ‘allies’, defeating opponents, working with teams, engaging in strategic thinking.

The narrative archs as stated before deal primarily with mythos from European-folklore based fantasy, East Asian folklore, space operas and martial-arts based dramas, Lovecraftian horror, Vampire fiction, Zombie fiction and military scenarios.

Contemporary app. games are gradually deviating from these, but they still in part stem from the original objectives set up in the age of table-top gaming development: mystery-solving, puzzle-solving, collaborative problem-solving with teams.

These are all things that are not found in our school system or museum and archive exhibits.

How can we successfully carry these over to games involving content in historical or cultural archives? How can we make such games familiar in template, engaging and meaningful?

Lastly, because the following videos struck a cord in me that I have yet to completely process in terms of its relevance and application:  The following 4th grade male teacher in Japan uses team and literacy activities to develop social and emotional empathy among children:

Can we develop games that encourage use and understanding of the materials of cultural heritage while also developing social and emotional literacy? Can we do this through games and activities?

Lots to chew on.

Digital archives, e-reading and what is lost?

Sitting down with a pile of recent New Yorker magazines given to me by a neighbor, eating a bowl of homemade soup, I marveled at how it felt to become engrossed in a medium that did not electronically glow or hum at me. Neither did it tempt with boosts of social-media-induced oxytocin when my interest in the author’s narrative began to waver. My mind felt calm as I fell into the developing piece. I fell happily into a zone unlike the frenetic zipping around on Twitter, or the  emotional juxtapositions on Facebook.

We have studied the brain activity of those online, those watching TV, those playing videogames….we are learning so much regarding how internet and computer use is creating changes in mental pathways. Have we studied the difference between MRIs of print-media readers vs. e-book/ blog/RSS/social a readers?

There is a perceived convenience in compiling, scanning, processing large amounts of citations and PDFs for research….but there is an experiential difference in going through printed articles, piles, folders, and books. I would argue that this experiential, emotional and intuitive difference informs and allows for differently motivated discoveries, reflections and insights.

How much is romantic projection and how much is neurologically accurate? And is there really a difference between those two? Is it a matter of platform? Would I feel differently if the manner in which I interact with the digital archive resembled that of shuffling through piles and pages? Would it be different sitting in a cafe versus sitting in front of my computer like a TV? Would it be different if I were using a touch-screen to move files into bibiliographic software? There are various impediments to my answering that question – limitations having to do with the cost of new equipment, my familiarity with certain software.

Still, is there some loss of serendipity?  Some level of intuitive control and mastery that years of working with paper publications has developed that the comparatively fickle and everchanging technologies of databases and metadata/retrieval systems has made too difficult for many to accomplish? Just when one develops a system of organization do frameworks and schema change and the world is captivated by promising new novelties. Akin to an office changing email platforms every two years, each model claiming improved usability and access…..the most productive professors may still swear by hotmail, Eudora or Pine.  The busiest administrators may still print up every email and file everything in paper stacks. Why? Because if too much went electronic, they know they would lose information. What they have and have done works, because their brain is busy with what else they have mastered.

What does this have to do with electronic reading and archives? Something occurred to me recently while organizing and backing up my files from my classes. I have electronic folders filled with PDFs. I have a account swimming in tags. Viewing these files, double-clicking to open them does not invoke the same emotional revelry that relaxed flipping through old readers or paper files does. Is this actual or merely personal?  Is this generational? As a teenager in the late 80’s and early 90’s I would go to Telegraph Ave., equipped with all the latest free weeklies (SF and East Bay Weekly, East Bay Express), the latest Sandman comic books, some article of local poetry from Zeitgeist Press, a used book or two of modern literature or philosophy. Armed with these and a notebook I would order a cappuccino at the Caffe Med, walk upstairs and I would tune out for several hour listening to post-punk on my cassette walkman.

In this manner, I would browse these printed volumes, writing down quotes, book titles, zine publishers, artists names. It was this research activity into literary, cultural and creative works that fueled my acquisition choices as a book buyer in the mid-late 90’s (before corporate culture had me packing off to graduate school).  Gen-X bohemia aside, my important point is…I did not spent the majority of that time trying to figure out how to flip my cassette over, or how to access an article in the back of a magazine or newspaper, or fretting over why I couldn’t find certain comic book issues in my bag or pile on the table. The connection and interaction with information access and recording seemed as smooth and natural as one’s own synaptic flow.   Perhaps those younger than me, the ‘digital natives’ are silently scoffing at my concerns. But I am still curious – how similar or different are these two methods of content discovery?

Fast-forward a couple years – shortly after these early 90’s, outside of library/university records the “social/research web” was limited to usenet groups. I scoured dozens, printing FAQ sheets, discographies, with some vague idea of preservation.  Fifteen years later I realize this kind of activity is what amazes me about current digital archiving practices.  But as I now find articles in printed newspapers and journals and waver between cutting them out to collect yet  “more paper” vs. the time it would take to go online to that journal to seek out the electronic copy of the piece and save the citation in (hoping that in future I could retrieve it with compatible metadata or even hope that the url still worked! )…there’s a strong chance things could become lost. I have file drawers of printed pieces from newspapers and magazines from 20-15 years ago, many of which are inaccessible online and out of print.  I am glad that I can peruse and discover articles I did not remember possessing. I also have boxes of notebooks that I wrote things down in. Obviously beside the differences in recording and retrieval there is a dramatic difference in public access. Who else beside myself can access these files or these notes?

I do not have easy answers for these inquiries other than an acknowledgment that these are challenges for both the processing of digital and traditional archives as well as challenges to cross-generational acceptance and standardization of ever changing technological methods of publishing, experiencing and preserving information.

Returning to the notion of measuring qualities of brain activity – is the activity conducted on the early days of the web, usenet groups, similar to that of surfing newsfeeds and engaging in social networking? Is there a difference between this kind of mental activity and that of reading printed material? Is zipping around a printed newspaper or magazine different than that of becoming engrossed in a novel? How is a graphic novel different? Or a video game? What does the MRI of someone reading Dostoevsky or Proust look like?

If human brain pathways are evolving – could we be losing “earlier versions” of our brains? Like languages, dialects and accents are lost…are we losing earlier pathways and structures?  Many studies argue that we are re-mapping our brains through our use of the digital.  What if these lost parts correlate with improved stress reduction or focus or things that we currently try to medicate for? Are there activities that also use these same neural zones? Painting, gardening, yoga?  Do we want to substitute a reading experience that feels like yoga or gardening with a reading experience that feels like navigating a busy freeway? Perhaps for those who enjoy the taste of adrenaline, that has its place…but before we completely switch over our means of informational input (a transition as dramatic as the printing press or discovery of electricity) it might do our mind and creative processes good to fully understand what we are gaining and what we might be sacrificing.

Google Swirl

I am consistently excited by new developments in visual browsing and searching on the web. Google’s new development to come out of Google Labs, Google Image Swirl is very provocative and is very close to something that I have been imagining. It would be fascinating it the application could be employed on pre-curated collections of images (ie. to “Google Swirl” a collection of visual art, such as ARTstor). But first, what is Google Swirl?

As a bridging of Picasa Face Recognition and Similar Images, search results depend upon both image metadata and computer vision research. There are comparisons to Google’s Wonder Wheel (which displays search results graphically) and Visual Thesaurus. One enters a search term and 12 groupings of images appear visualized as photo stacks. One chooses a particular image and the Flash experimental interface “swirls” to display your image and branches to numerous other images with varying degrees of relationship to that image.