Friday, 23 February 2007 - 8:48pm

On Fire appearing with Caspian and Constants

On Fire, the band I joined last summer, is performing in April at the Paradise with Caspian and Constants. More info to come soon.

Caspian Show Poster

Tuesday, 13 February 2007 - 11:16pm

Compiling QCad on OS X with fink

UPDATE 2008.01.16: For some reason the original patch file I uploaded was wrong. I’ve corrected it and the correct file should be referenced now. Apply with “patch – p0 < qcad-”.

NOTE: I can’t seem to build this on an Intel Mac due to problems with gcc-3.3 (see these posts about why you can’t build projects using gcc-3.3 on Intel Macs). I’m trying to get this to build properly on an Intel Mac using gcc-4.0, but haven’t been successful yet, unfortunately. Until then, this only works for Power PC Macs.


Another technical post, so skip if you don’t like the words “compile”, “fink”, or “qmake”.

I’ve been looking for a good free or open-source CAD/CAAD software for OS X. Most products, like SolidWorks or Rhino, are not only not-free, but also not available on OS X. For my thesis work I’ve been trying to use as much open-source software as possible, perhaps as a means of masochism, but more because I want to results of my work to be available and used by as many as possible. One way to do that is to use software that anybody can get for themselves, building it on a variety of platforms as needed.

Of course, it might take a few days to get something built because of various strange issues, but that’s a matter for another post.

So QCad had gotten a lot of good responses from people online as the most full-featured open-source CAD software available for Linux, and thus for OS X as well. To give RibbonSoft credit where credit is due, they release the source for QCad under the GPL; however, binaries are available only in time-limited demos. Unless, of course, your Linux distribution prepares binaries for you. (Ubuntu does, so I had QCad up and running on my Linux machine in no time.) However, on OS X, the only compiled binaries are available from RibbonSoft. Cheap grad student that I am with fungible deadlines I decided to give compiling QCad a shot. I quickly ran into a number of problems, the solutions to which I will try and detail below.

So, in order to compile QCad on OS X with fink, do the following:

  1. Make sure you have gcc-3.3 installed.
  2. Install the qt3mac packages from fink (including -shlibs, -apps, etc.).
  3. Download the QCad Community Edition source.
  4. Apply the following patch to the source directory
  5. cd to scripts/, run “./ notrans”

After a while you’ll have a living in qcad/. Just copy to your /Applications folder (or wherever you want) and you should be set. Examples, library, and documentation can be copied from a downloaded demo version.

The reasons for the changes in the patch are the following:

  • For some reason fink splits the mkspecs, translations, etc., from qt3mac and puts it under /sw/share/qt3mac, instead of under /sw/lib/qt3mac, like it is with qt3.
  • I ran into linking problems when using gcc-4.0, and for some reason qmake wasn’t honoring the settings of gcc_select, so I had to explicitly give the names of the gcc binaries I wanted to use.
  • The “-pedantic” flag causes problems.

Note that I haven’t tried building from start to finish using this patch on a clean download, but I think it should work. Let me know if there are issues.

Friday, 2 February 2007 - 7:19am

The Curse of Wanting the Novel

There’re days when you latch on to one performer, one type of music, and you don’t know why. It consumes what you think about; you dance to silence, the sounds you hear only for yourself, the people looking in from the windows thinking you’re listening to something coming from the speakers in the living room: but no, what you hear is so powerful it lives in your mind alone. Sometimes the sounds do come from speakers, the crappy ones on your laptop, but you conjure the pair of membranes into the instruments and voices from whence they came.

For me today the band is Arcade Fire.

Those of you who know the indie rock scene will probably sneer, reminding me that Pitchfork called this one a couple of years ago. “2005 called and wants its darlings back.” But I don’t care right now. It’s 2007, and it’s doing something for me now, and critics and condenscending scenesters be damned.

What I’m also thinking about, while listening to something like “Rebellion (Lies)”, is how great the song is as a whole: the instrumentation just works, the strange chord changes happen exactly when they should. Thousands have heard this song, on the album or live, thousands have had the same powerful experience that I’m having right now. And I think… if I wrote this song, if I played violin on this track, would I be satisfied?

Sadly, the answer is likely no.

What’s wrong here? There’s something in me that pushes me towards the avant-garde for satisfaction, a drive that always points towards the novel and never heard (or seen or written or thought) before and not the beautifully-polished-already-existing. Whatever makes me go requires that what I do is always on the cutting edge (or at least tries to be). I have to be at the most forward-thinking place doing things that nobody else has thought of, that nobody else cares about (because they’re new and not common).

I wonder why I couldn’t be content just being good at whatever I do, even if tons of other people do it. Like maybe I could just be a really good violinist in a band, not someone who’s trying to think of a completely new way of making sounds (not music) with his violin. Or maybe I could just make some really interesting crafts instead of trying to think about what is the future direction of interactive artworks.

This is definitely not to demean the work of all of the wonderful crafters on etsy or tinyshowcase or the members of Arcade Fire. It’s more me just wondering why I personally can’t be happy on that level. Why I always have to be going for something more “novel”. Not that novelty or newness (if originality can even be said to exist) is necessarily better. Of course it’s not. I just don’t know why I think it is.

It really worries me when I think about my current future of being an academic, and the abysmally small audience that I’ll have. (Getting a thousand people to read your 200 page book is an incredible success.) Why am I choosing a direction where what I do will be the concern of so few people? And in such an insular community? And if I want to reach more people, how do I do that? And am I prepared for the variety of things I’ll hear? And is there a way for me to be comfortable with being in the beautiful-but-already-there?

Sunday, 21 January 2007 - 11:43pm

Two Difficult Books Read Last Year

Most people write their 2006 wrap-up shortly after 2006 has ended, where “shortly” refers to a span of a couple days, a week at most.

But I seem to have a different definition of the word “shortly”.

Last year was a timespan for reading much that I hadn’t read before, exposing my brain to academic ideas that tickled it into different directions, said directions leading to applications for science, technology, and society PhD programs. Yet at the same time I was reading more and more experimental fiction, seeing on the page new ways to define old words. Both strands are difficult to follow as the brain has to “work hard” (read: get more glucose) to understand the neoteric when it is constantly surrounded by the conventional.

So, two difficult books read last year that belong to both strands.

We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour

This was one of those books where you read it and say, “Wow! That’s exactly how I’ve always felt but unable to put into words!” What Latour does is show that the traditional split in the social sciences between nature and society is non-existent in reality. Sure, we try to effect that divide, to go on acts of “purification” to ensure that there is no mixing of the two realms, but we’re never completely able to do so. And in fact, it’s the artifacts of modernity that show the purposelessness of the divide: things like global warming, new biotechnological drugs, and the so on have as their actors examples from both nature and society.

The title is in reference to the modernist belief in purity, in the assigning of each part of the world to either nature or society. Thus Latour says that in fact we have never been modern, and that we are actually pre-modern.

From my reading of this book by Latour I got into actor-network theory and a new way for me to think about technological artifacts and objects with agency. I can’t overestimate the influence of this book on my current thinking and direction.

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

I’m a native English speaker, but I had an incredibly difficult time reading this short book by Ben Marcus. Not that the vocabulary used was beyond my own. No, Marcus instead reuses familiar words but in completely unexpected ways. Weather becomes something you eat: humans become observation machines. The diction and syntax are entirely familiar, yet the semantics are entirely novel. Basically it’s a mindfuck, but the best kind. Like when I first read ee cummings in high school and realized that you could write poetry in that way. With Marcus’ collection I realized you could write fiction in that way. Eye-opening in an obfuscating and revelatory way.

Over Christmas break I read his most recent novel, Notable American Women, that is strangely related to the stories in his first collection. For some reason what works on the level of the short story lost some strength over the course of a novel, so I recommend you start with The Age of Wire and String.

What of 2007?

Here’s to more difficult books, more strange ideas, and more crazy ways to think about the world.

Saturday, 13 January 2007 - 9:47pm website updated

If you visit right now you won’t see the Courier-shaped boxes of pixels that existed there for way too many years. Prompted by applications to certain PhD programs I needed to update my web-based portfolio, which had languished in the un-spun quarters of a disused hard drive for far too long. Hence the update and recent hair-pulling experiences of trying to decide on a design, a layout, an image. What’s at right now is not only my portfolio, but also the beginnings of a real personal website. Imagine that.

Behind the scenes, just like with this blog, is WordPress.

Friday, 17 November 2006 - 9:06pm

The Table Childhood

A project I just became aware of today called The Table Childhood

Watch the video to see it in action; it reminds me a lot of the movements of syngvaa. Things to consider: size of an object and its motion towards the viewer, participant. When does this become frightening? Interesting? Relationship of the movement and expectations related to the object’s form? Questions of agency and control?

Wednesday, 18 October 2006 - 3:41pm


A short video documenting the early stages of my latest project, syngvaa.

Hi-res version

More information to come later.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006 - 6:12am

Terminal Air

Tonight I attended a talk at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies entitled Terminal Air, given by Tad, Hirsh, Trevor Paglen, and Andrew Woods. The topic was the extraordinary rendition by the CIA of “terrorist” subjects. Given the recent admission by Bush of the CIA program, the issue has been brought into the wider public’s consciousness. I have followed news stories of the rendition program as much as possible, but the combination of Trevor’s incredibly detailed accounts of fake companies, public (but secret) CIA airports, and civilian-gathered flight path information, combined with Andrew’s first-hand account of working the El Masri v. Tenet case, made for a dual compelling-frightening evening.

Questions and discussion was also quite interesting. Trevor brought up a thought-provoking point about democracy: one of the tenets of democracy is that when the similar reasonable people are given the same evidence, they will come to similar conclusions. His worry is that that is not the case today, and that in fact personal desire for certain facts or conclusions (from across the political spectrum) prevents that tenet from holding anymore. I’m not entirely sure if I agree with him that that is one of the main truths of democracy; but I can see where he is coming from, and the problem that he is referrering to. And if we hold that as a tenet, then indeed we have cause for alarm.

Also, in response to a question about cooperation between the ACLU and other organizations in El Masri v. Tenet, Andrew raised the point that coordination across organization boundaries is still quite difficult. So many groups, so many topics, so many wrongs to right. The problem is evident whenever one attends a protest: no blood for oil is next to stop torture is next to end racism. Indeed, each is an important cause in and of itself, but the centralized coordination of the Administration is, frankly, kicking our ass in this situation. We need to figure out a way to come together, to share resources, to combine our dollars. Indeed, as Andrew mentioned, donating to a non-profit these days is exactly like some sort of progressive market: we give to our pet cause, when the dollars could perhaps be used to better ends if we pooled them with others. Definitely something to think about.

Finally, Tad and Trevor have been working on an interactive project that will allow people to investigate and explore these flights on their own. The project, which looked quite amazing when they showed it tonight, should be made public soon.

Update: See also the new book co-written by Trevor entitled Torture Taxi. I haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like the talk he gave, it ought to be quite good.

Monday, 18 September 2006 - 6:17pm

The Demise of Baghdad's Intellectual Street

More pain from Iraq:

Perched on a red chair outside a closet-sized bookshop, the only one open, Naim al-Shatri is nearly in tears. Short, with thin gray hair and dark, brooding eyes, his voice is grim. This is normally his busiest day, but he hasn’t had a single sale. A curfew is approaching.

Soon, his sobs break the stillness. “Is this Iraq?” he asked no one in particular, pointing at the gritty, trash-covered street as the scent of rotting paper and sewage mingled in the air.

It is a question many of the booksellers on Mutanabi Street are asking. Here, in the intellectual ground zero of Baghdad, they are the guardians of a literary tradition that has survived empire and colonialism, monarchy and dictatorship. In the heady days after the U.S.-led invasion, Mutanabi Street pulsed with the promise of freedom.

Now, in the fourth year of war, it is a shadow of its revered past. Many of the original booksellers have been forced to shut down. Others have been arrested, kidnapped or killed, or have fled Iraq. “We are walking with our coffins in our hands,” said Mohammad al-Hayawi, the owner of the Renaissance book store, one of the street’s oldest shops. “Nothing in Iraq is guaranteed anymore.”

Wednesday, 13 September 2006 - 11:51pm

Dunne and Raby: Placebo Project

The work of Dunne and Raby (warning: javascript resize) was some of the first that I came across as I navigated away from straight cognitive science. Shortly after I arrived as a research assistant in the Kanwisher Lab, I attended a lecture by the two of them in the architecture department at MIT. My only experience with academic talks were those of the scientific variety, so to attend a design and art presentation, so shortly after finishing my undergraduate studies, and even though I was extremely interested in this area, was a challenging experience. I had to turn off the internal censor shouting words that were appropriate, but the meaning of which I didn’t yet understand in this new domain: evidence, hypothesis, experiment. Where were they? There were no graphs to guide me; I didn’t know which signposts in their discourse to use as markings of appropriateness. I had yet to engage with these words outside of the “scientific method” and had no way of really evaluating what I had seen and heard. The methods were foreign to one trained entirely in the oft-believed, and appropriately criticized, hypothesis-experiment-results-repeat series of steps.

I left slightly miffed, realizing that I had seen something quite provocative, but still unable to recognize or realize what it was that made it so interesting.

Fast-forward to spring 2005. I’m taking a course at the Media Lab when I return to the work of Dunne and Raby yet again, this time for my ætherspace project and an exploration of “Hertzian Space”. I realized then, as I do now, the importance of our psychological perceptions of the electromagnetic world. Just as it’s relatively immaterial whether or not we are really affected by EM radiation from our objects, if we have the perception that we are, that will radically effect how we interact with these new intruders into our environment. While scientific studies attempt to determine causes and effects, we still must deal how we conceptualize the consequences of regular interactions with objects whose mechanisms most are at a loss to understand.

Fall 2006, and I’m back. Back to the project that brought me to ætherspace, their Placebo Project (link to the de-framed page). This time my concern is agency: what are our conceptions of agency when faced with new computational objects? Here is not the right place to go into the history of this question, but I’ve returned to this work to understand how people understood the mechanisms of the objects in the Placebo Project. Unfortunately, the excellent book that was a result, Design Noir, is currently checked-out at our architecture library, so I cannot quote extensively.

There are some extremely pertinent and interesting things to note. Consider the GPS Table, an item that displays its exact latitude and longitude when it can reach the GPS satellites, and “lost” when it cannot. In the words of one of the people who lived with the table for some time, “I’m not quite sure why I was shocked. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, the poor thing’s lost.’” His choice of words is extremely revealing: calling the table by the pitiful phrase “poor thing” suggests a type of deep connection with the object, for reasons that he is “not quite sure”. So what’s going on here? All we have is a table with a two-line LCD screen, and a human is making an identification with it and using language that might be, in other situations, directed at a living thing (such as an animal). Is it simply that we do not have the language to describe non-animate objects dispassionately? Are we merely grafting onto our discourse means and terms that we would not use if we had another way to describe things? Or is there a consideration of the human by the human but from the point of view of the object? Take our concept of “lost”. For this to have any effect on the person here, he must understand the predicament of the thing “lost”, and to do so, he would have to place himself in the metaphorical “position” of the thing lost. Doing so, he would understand that the response to such a situation is often a desire to help the thing (but usually, a human) that is lost. Here the remedy is simple: place the table in a location that has a line-of-sight to the GPS satellites (simple to say in words, but not so simple to do without a knowledge of wireless communications and propagation paths). But to return to our question: in order for these reasoning steps to occur, the human must already be considering that the table can experience being “lost”, which would require a conception that the table has at least some particularities of “agency” that enables it (the table) to “want” a change in the situation of “lost”.

So even in this situation, with a rather simple electronic object, the human interacting with the object does not objectify it; rather, he identifies with the object’s agency. Yet this agency is not actually “there” in the table itself; there is nothing in the circuitry of the table to give it this ability. No, the “agency” is still only in the mind of the human, but that is no matter; it is this agency which influences the behaviour of the human in this (and other) situations. And since our language is our language, we cannot speculate as to what would have “really” happened if we had other, separate, ways to describe non-animate objects. And we were able to unpack this all from two sentences by the participant!

My goal now is to figure out what about this table made it so wonderful at drawing this sort of response from the participant in the project. I have some ideas, but those will have to wait for another post, I believe.

Thoughts about these ideas and criticisms of my reasoning are greatly appreciated.