August 23rd, 2006


Screaming meaning machine

The meaning machine screams on. When I'm not churning out daily narratives here at Click Opera, I'm churning them out elsewhere. Here are two recent stories you may have missed. I've lifted the most interesting chunks of them, and summarized the comments they attracted. It's funny how, even though my subjects change, my themes remain pretty constant: a basic respect for otherness, a love of everything cheap, bizarre and incidental, and a certain amount of unashamed cheerleading for eco-utopianism.

AIGA Voice: Museum frames strangeness strangely

"One moment you’ll be in an expensive, freshly-designed series of halls telling the story of the dinosaurs with slick cut-away multimedia graphics, the next you’ll find yourself in a neglected cul-de-sac featuring Maori masks from 19th century New Zealand, all framed with sans serif typefaces, dry transfer lettering, salmon pink display cases, green carpeting and walls that meet the floor with rounded corners—design signifiers from the early 1970s. What’s so wonderful about the Natural History Museum is the way its narrative is always portraying differences (and differences, often doomed ones, are very much the theme of any museum or zoo, a place, like Bedlam, where we come to see the Other rendered as a kind of Freak Show) differently.

"Whether we encounter endangered differences via an airline or a museum, they’re likely to be staged with a fascinating blend of science and showbiz—and all taped together with the grammar of ... well, whatever design tropes were current last time anyone could afford a revamp. Those of us who find a certain poetry in otherness of presentation as well as otherness of content—who spot the streamlined metallic lettering designs of 1947 with as much excitement as we spot a stuffed giant panda chewing bamboo in a synthetic forest—can only hope that the Natural History Museum remains poor enough to stay rich in strangeness."

Comments: One appreciation of retro strangeness, one complaint about exoticization by museums, someone blaming the shift towards interactivity for flattening the museum experience, someone agreeing but blaming designers for forgetting "distinction and individuality", someone asking for more images, an URL for a New York Times article about two approaches to science displays in California, an URL for some Flickr pictures of the NY Natural History Museum, and a correction telling me a Maori hall I'd identified as 1970s was actually opened just three years ago.

Wired News: Power From the People

"For the environmentally conscious, it's a thrilling idea. Suddenly a typical city looks like a series of energy-generating opportunities currently being missed. All those people walking, cars driving, elevated iron bridges vibrating as the trains roll across -- aren't they a bit like wind, sun or waves just waiting to have their energy harnessed and turned into power?

"Although it may not yet be economically viable to install big piezo networks all over our cities, some people are working on energy harvesting and scavenging projects, and in some cases there are already products you can buy... It's fascinating to imagine a future in which almost nothing goes to waste, and power gets recycled in highly efficient loops. It raises all sorts of questions I'm sure Jacques and Pierre Curie, who discovered piezoelectrics in 1880, never got around to thinking about. Who really owns energy? Should we start thinking of walking (or just standing still and vibrating) as a commodity we could sell, or a gift we should give? If I'm powering your train station with my body, shouldn't I get the occasional free ride?"

Comments: Someone thinks the ants in a film called "Ant Bully" use piezo electric crystals at some point, someone asks why the Japanese gather electricity from the floor and not from a rotating mechanical turnstile, someone suggests they should build homes with power-generating gyms to slim down the population, and someone else says that better use of batteries would allow people to partially power a TV by pedalling an exercise bike.