Like 2013, I think last year was a “year without qualities”. It was not a good year, not even an interesting year. At the very least, things didn’t turn out as bad personally, and whatever my problems, complains and sorrows were, they were the problems, complains and sorrows of someone privileged to be safe and healthy: I even made good on 2004’s (sic) New Year resolution of starting to exercise.
Still, looking outward, 2014 was a garbage year full of bad omens. That has been extensively covered, and both you and I would gain nothing if I were to relist all the tragedies, most still unfolding. If you must, Charlie Brooker, a clever and funny man, tries his best at a humourous recap and fails; there was little fun in 2014. Still, I may add that that something like the ‘Dark Enlightment' is even an idea proves the kind of thinking that produced ISIS is not the exclusive of any particular religion or country; I came to realize that the political Right is, for all its pretenses, a black hole: there is no point at which conservatives would be satisfied and say “society is as we want it”, for there would always exist a Right, pointing toward anarchy and despotic barbarism — the post-apocalyptic fantasies of gun-fiend survivalists, every man for himself against hordes of zombies, or perhaps immigrants, seeming more like a political programme than a genuine fear.
How have things in Portugal been? Interesting, in a bad way. Late last year our former Prime Minister, José Sócrates, was arrested on vague charges, and is still in prison in order to be investigated for… some kind of corruption, or whatever. Such a situation presents us with two possibilities: A. Sócrates is a crook whom, like Al Capone, was finally caught because of something smaller like tax evasion and is now undergoing thorough investigation; B. Sócrates is a political prisioner, arrested at the airport upon entering the country, reporters of our local Fox News clone already at the scene, spinning stories for the naïve involving suitcases full of money. I truly prefer option A., even though one suspects B., and one will never ever know. Whatever the outcome in the courts, Sócrates will remain Schrödinger’s PM, such is the nature of our politics. At the same time, one of Portugal’s biggest banks failed and was bailed out by the government, its coffers were apparently robbed blind by the bankster family that ran it to the ground, and while nobody is arrested people are still told that socialism ends when the money ends and other assorted Thatcherite catchphrases, apparentely because people live in a paralel universe to that of finance.
There are multiple such universes though, and the media makes sure one never knows in which universe one currently resides. Charlie Brooker’s report I linked above includes a segment by Adam Curtis on how media is used to obfuscate, confuse and leave citizens in a state of anxious acceptance. But while right, I think Curtis is late to the premediation party: it’s not just Putin, it’s not just the British government learning some KGB-fu. It’s everyone, everywhere: societies became societies of actors and societies of artifice, reality has been vanquished. In 2014 we even found out that Facebook Inc. tampers with the information you are presented (as they were obviously going to do), so you can’t even trust the mediated representations of your ‘friends’. Take it away, Reza Farazmand:
Reality has also been vanquished in my city of Porto, Best European Disneyland of the Year for a number of travel magazines, its votes rigged or its journalists handsomely treated by the local hostel industry. Disneyland Porto does seem like a nice place to live, but in this universe all I see are lots of new and somewhat pricier coffee shops, gourmet burger joints and gin & tonic bars that seem like good places to hang out with my friends, hadn’t most of them, even those with kids, been forced to look for a job abroad (a great way for a government to lower unemployment, by the way). But hey, the city’s rebranding apparently makes being a 35 year old living in a shared apartment all worthwhile.
Still, I can’t really complain much about 2014 on a personal level. My 2013 complaints about miscommunication (and miscommunity) in the connected age remain, so do my complaints about precariousness in work and in love. I had a health scare that fortunately turned out to be nothing, but made me aware of the realities of ageing, while hardly feeling like an adult yet. But still, I had a full year, in which I traveled, made an effort in getting to know people and engaging with different kinds of activities — from videography, both on the street and with a theatre company, to both visiting and selling at flea markets, from working up some of the required “benevolent anger” in thinking about software and citizenship to teaching at the college; all while neglecting my PhD, casting that dark shadow of guilt I’ll have to learn how to manage in to 2015.
One can’t but to look forward to a new year, it always feels like a fresh page. So, considering how long it took for me to start going to a gym, I think that one resolution — of balancing my PhD’s work and guilt throughout the year — will be enough.
Phew! What a lousy year it was, 2014. After a great 2013 film-wise, either I chose my movie outings poorly, or 2014 had indeed a rather bad crop. I only went to a movie theatre about thirty times, and quite often I just looked at the listings, thought everything was so meh!, and went to do something else instead. There were however, amongst the superhero episodes (which at least create mythologies) and the forgettable dramedies, some good works of art and entertainment in the theatres in 2014. Unlike this critic’s, my picks for 2014 might even be very slightly better than my favourite movies of 2013.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I’m not one to jump on bandwagons and I’m usually suspicious of anything that has the degree of universal acclaim Linklater’s masterpiece achieved. Still, I am hard pressed to find any fault whatsoever with this film (well, maybe except for the use of Coldplay in the soundtrack at the beginning of the film), the result of an incredibly risky project that feels perfectly natural in the body of work of the guy who directed Slacker. In Boyhood, character transformation happens because it just does as time passes, not as a result of plot. Small episodes might have consequences, or might have not. People come into the life of Mason and his family and seem important, and than they’re gone elsewhere. Boyhood almost challenges what is meant by ‘fiction' because even though those are made-up characters played by professional actors acting made-up situations, there's no disbelief in the movie requiring suspension. It's a truthful fiction, showing the extraordinary (as it must be, as we watch it in a movie theatre and find it compelling) in the ordinary.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Without leaving Earth for mythological heights inhabited by aliens and superheroes, Nightcrawler is on the far opposite end of the placid Boyhood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a rabid hungry coyote, perhaps more wolfish than di Caprio’s, perhaps more of a psycho than Bale’s. He is the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, only holding a camera rather than trading financial derivatives.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and back to placid-er plains. Wheareas plot is probably the least important element of my other two picks, Nebraska, while not exactly a tightly-plotted film (leave that to something like Gone Girl), had the most satisfying story I’ve seen in a film all year. It’s veritable literature, coupled with Payne’s humourous deadpan Americana.
Some films of 2014 were genuine disappointments — I would say Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is as vast and as empty as space, while I found Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which I had eagerly awaited since watching the first trailer, more interested with the bodily noises of J.M.W. Turner rather than his art. Still, besides the 2014 Top Three, I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which, like Nightcrawler, I found a great observation of turbo-capitalism, this time as a farce. I also liked Spike Jonze’s Her as a thought experiment about emerging AI; as I wrote previously, even though I found its resolution quite flawed, it’s a film sure to occupy philosophers (and UX designers) in years to come. Another glorious but flawed film I really liked was Ari Folman’s The Congress, which I thought even trippier than Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Considering Boyhood, Steven Knight’s Locke is perhaps the most opposite kind of project one could imagine (just a guy driving his car for ninety minutes), but Tom Hardy does give the defnitive performance of Bluetooth-connected acting. And finally, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which I enjoyed as perhaps the definitive film of a long-missed subgenre, the Michael Douglas thriller (not starring Mr. Douglas).
I should also highlight David O’Russell American Hustle (a giant in the pantheon of cinematic hairdos), Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (no film ever made me want to visit Rome as much), Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (which I actually found manneiristic and lesser Wes, but still, Anderson), Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man (its closing scenes becoming more shocking and poignant as marking the premature end of Philip Seymour Hoffman), João Botelho’s Os Maias (a very lively — and even fun — rendition of the novel dreaded by so many portuguese highschoolers) and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (a refreshingly humourous superhero flick to gorge on popcorn and coke).
Still, there are some interesting movies on the horizon for 2015 that are not Star Wars. And indeed, is there a better way to spend the New Year’s Day hangover than at the movies?
Wishing all my readers a Happy Holiday!
Spending so much time on the Internet, there are certain phenomena I am most certainly aware on an unconscious level, but don’t seem to really register until someone points them out. Such is the case of the #shitpic, the subject of Brian Feldman’s great essay The Triumphant Rise of the Shitpic, which, unlike other -pics, I was relieved to find is a purely metaphoric descriptior of very lo-fi images, tipically of memes, that are usually produced when mobile users take screen captures or photograph screens in order to circunvent the lack of re-sharing or download functions in apps such as Instagram. Doing so adds layers of recompression and degradation that mimic analog properties and ‘age’ a meme as it spreads, up to the point the shittiest pic correlates with the funniest (or at least the most viral) meme.
Nick Douglas has a few more links and comments on the subject, including his contribution to a Journal of Visual Culture issue dedicated to memes, which is refreshingly free to read.
Going in the absolutely opposite direction (#tastypics?), I found these demos of the BPG image format absolutely jawdropping, and I hope BPGs start to replace JPEGs, like, yesterday. However, since BPG images are, very basically, still HEVC frames, I sincerely hope software patents won’t muck everything up and ensure JPEG reign well into the 2030s, allowing generations upon generations of #shitpics to overrun the Internet.
Paul Ford (again) with a story that is a veritable and emotional tour de force about the loss of an old friend, a friendship that had been cemented on a mutual interest in computing, weaving together personal memories, home computing history and some remarks about emulation.
It’s interesting the experience of an old OS can be as poignant as a personal memento as an old photograph or a personal artifact; nostalgia knows no medium, after all. Old software, though, is not commonly found in shoeboxes in the attic, nor do the platforms to run it. I believe this proves just how critical and thorny some issues of digital preservation are: for retro-computing, at least, does exist — software can be copied to newer media and circuits can be emulated —, but what about retro social networking? Retro-smartphones? We’re probably going to lose this present: in the age of Big Data there’ll be hardly any artifacts for nostagia.
Vemödalen (the fear that everything has already been done) from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. (via Studio Daily)
While too many forces — most of all family and advertising — try to pass the idea each one of us is special or different and that we should 'express ourselves' or something, it’s always worth reminding that we are not so special. Nobody is; and there is a very real sense of safety in numbers in embracing the possibility of being trite and the clichéd, and in recognizing people similar to us most certainly had the same ideas. This seems like a recipe for conformity, but therein lies the real challenge: not in expressing our (not so) unique selves, but in maintaining critical freedom from the twin desires of fitting in and of being unique.
While we’re on the subject, here’s an amusing scientific paper titled The hipster effect: When anticonformists all look the same (PDF). And so it may be asked, why shouldn’t anticonformists look the same? And why should we care — as long as the anticonformists are true anticonformists? (via Boing Boing)
A couple of weeks ago I led a workshop on ‘analog software’ during the FuturePlaces media lab here in Porto. Influenced by Casey Reas’ articulation between creative coding and conceptual art I had expected participants to be interested in sketching procedural graphics on paper or canvas. Instead, I seemed to have struck a deeper chord by mentioning in passing SocialFiction’s .walk. Participants became more interested in ‘coding’ performative behaviour and questioning the way software is eating the world, which was a very welcome surprise.
A more detailed debriefing is up at the FuturePlaces website. Please also be sure to read Sara Moreira's Coding as Cooking essay which is a very interesting personal testimony, relating the Analog Software workshop with the great Frugal Food Challenge we had both attended and had a lot of fun at.