24 October 2011

Jason Salavon, Computational Artist

At the University of Chicago yesterday, Victor and I attended an interview with Jason Salavon as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival day in Hyde Park. This artist's work is amazing. He transforms digital information into aesthetically pleasing and often fascinating works. One piece, Field Guide, is a copy of "the entire 2007 IKEA catalogue, leaving only color and structure." Another piece turns shoe manufacturing data into a hypnotic, psychedelic animation. Golem is a generator/printer of very convincing abstract paintings reminiscent of Hans Hoffman and Richard Diebenkorn.

This is art with brains and beauty, satisfying on multiple levels.

05 September 2011

Adventures in Caffeine

I never liked coffee. It was my father's drink. My mother drank tea, so I thought coffee was for men, with that logic children are born with. The fact that my grandmother drank coffee was confusing, but like any good theoretician I didn't let the facts get in the way of my conclusions.

Because I never particularly noticed that tea had a taste (tea from teabags rarely does), I drank plain hot water for years. Then I somehow got introduced to real tea--from loose leaves. And learned that tea could be delicious.

Working at home, I had the flexibility to drink a pot of tea in the morning, but on days I went out without drinking the pot, I found I felt awful.: caffeine withdrawal.

So I started getting mochas-to-go, or cappuccinos. A far more efficient caffeine-delivery mechanism (one serving got me what I needed), and perfectly palatable as long as I added a packet of sugar.

For the past several months we have had an espresso machine at home, so the ritual has changed once more: the morning begins with a cup of cappuccino, whether I'm in or out. If I'm in, I follow this with a pot of tea; if not, not. Thus, the caffeine-urge is satisfied, the tastebuds are satisfied, and I go about my day (relatively) alert.

My child-self would be utterly confused at this union of (she believed) opposites. But she was wrong about an awful lot of things. 

27 June 2011

Going Digital

I have never been as attracted to books as objects so much as for what they contain. Those who know me might raise their eyebrows at this--I have an awful lot of books. But I have rarely minded cheap editions or used ones; as long as a book was readable, I'd be happy enough to own it.

Of course, some books are attractive primarily because of their physical aspect: my Abrams art book on collage, with its tipped-in pictures and two-color letterpress printing; the book about the Peacock Room that I am reading now. And some books are really more convenient and useful in their analog state--like travel guidebooks and field guides, so you can flip through when you don't know what you're looking for.

Sitting in my living room lately, with its wall of books, I've been fantasizing about empty space. The advantage of books on the shelf is the visual sweep--there's a randomness factor: running your thumb along the spines you might choose to read a book you didn't intend to at first. There's a similar loss in the exchange (years ago accomplished) of digital music for CDs, but that loss is compensated somewhat by software "shuffle" features. Browsing is also still possible in digital book collections; it just becomes a conscious choice rather than a default activity. Web services like Library Thing can display book collections in multiple formats.

Slogans against digital books point out "books don't need batteries" but the physical space required by books is not trivial (says one who has lined the walls of two rooms with them). And this far-from-trivial space has very limited value beyond what it contains. It does provide a kind of eccentric eye candy and a visual reminder of what one has read and has yet to read. For the most part, though, the books are bound and printed cheaply, not made to last, and the spines fade on the shelf. The loyalty to what one has read and what one wants (or wanted at one time) to have read...sometimes it seems silly.

So find myself wishing that much of my library were digitized. As I read Wolf Hall on my Kindle last week, I had absolutely no nostalgia for turning paper pages, or lugging around a big fat tome. I was enthralled by the novel, and didn't need yellowing paper to enhance that enchantment.

It's quite impossible to contemplate buying digital copies of all my books. It would cost something around $30K (assuming ,$9.99 a book for 3,000 books). Of course, some I wouldn't want digitized, and some are not available.

It turns out that there are devices to transform real books to e-book files, and I even found a service. The devices are either really expensive or require you to turn the pages (and sometimes both)--imagine doing this for 3,000 books! Ugh. The service might be worthwhile, at least for some books not available on Kindle (they won't do a Kindle conversion for books already commercially available on ereaders, though you could get PDFs).

For now I am lightly thinning the shelves by replacing hard copies with digital versions of free or cheaply available classics by the likes of Dickens and Wharton. I have established a moratorium on buying new paper books unless they are unavailable for Kindle, or they really are better in paper (cookbooks are another example).

My library's digital conversion will happen in fits and starts, and will not be complete, but it is happening.

20 June 2011

The British Library's Virtual Books

Victor and I have been to London a number of times, and one of our favorite places to visit is the British Library. Like our Library of Congress, it is a national library; unlike the Library of Congress, it sees its mission as global rather than national (its slogan: Explore the world's knowledge). A personal visit to either can be a little disappointing for a lay book lover--the shelves are typically not open to just anyone; you have to present yourself as a researcher of some kind, fill out a request slip, and wait for the librarian to deliver what you desire.

Even so, our first visit to the British Library took hours. Open to the public is a large exhibit room containing a varying assortment of remarkable documents under glass: a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Magna Carta, a handwritten draft of a Beatles lyric by Paul, pages from Jane Austen's first novel. In an alcove, you can sit at a terminal and virtually turn the pages of (for example) an early illuminated Hebrew bible.

It is really the coolest thing ever.

And I just learned you don't have to go to London to use it. The British Library's website provides access to "virtual books." You can download a Shockwave plugin and leaf through one of William Blake's notebooks or Mercator's first atlas of Europe.

Unbelievably awesome. Just when you're thinking that all the Internet has to offer is faster, grimmer news and LOLcats, something like this makes you remember that technology can still do amazing things.