Content-aware Typography, a blog collecting submissions of works that remix typography through Photoshop’s Content-aware Fill tool.

Last year's film (& etc.)

Even though a wee bit late as we enter the second day of the new year, I must collect some additional thoughts on 2013. I am not one to choose media over spending time with people, but books and film remain prime consolations. I even took up record colecting for a while, but lacking a proper living room environment (I have got the stereo hooked up at my office) made me slow down. The PhD put quite a dent on my reading for fun, even as I kept adding books to my anti-library, as Nassim Taleb, the harsh lebanese epistemiologist, would put it. And while I didn’t go to the movies as much as I would have liked, I saw some good movies in 2013.


Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was my favourite film of the year. As I wrote about it at the time, the greatest joy of Frances Ha is in how it manages to be a fully self-contained, soulful film about being a young adult nowadays. You get to know this carefree, hipster-ish young artist (as one reviewer I can’t recall put it, "the kind of person you want to hate"), and slowly you get to see the sacrifices, the heartbreaks and the immense dignity there are in actually trying to live one’s own life, and how what frequently passes for ‘responsibility’ is actually just an easy way out. Greta Gerwig’s great performance reminded me of more than one person I know. And I am happy she did.


Spring Breakers

I think Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a very sharp satire that perfectly captures the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, how a critical masses of want, greed, lust and desire collapse into pure sociopathic behaviour.


Gravity

The jawdropping technical gorgeousness of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is enough for me to consider it one of the best movies of the year. I must say I didn’t find it as Great a movie as Cuarón’s previous Children of Men (perhaps last decade’s only worthwhile entry into sci-fi canon), but I did go watch it in 3D three times. In a row. Even despite, in a film that works hard towards accuracy, the basic scientific errors that are like dark stains in a clean sheet. I’d still watch it again.


In addition, there are a bunch of movies I definitely recommend, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle. These are all worthy of a five star rating, and enough has been written about them. 

I will rather mention a few movies I think are a bit weaker (four star?), but have a degree of interestingness to them, such as Joseph Kosinsnky’s Oblivion, a Tom Cruise vehicle that feels a lost 1970s sci-fi classic. I found it a solid and enjoyable sci-fi flick, whereas I found Gilleremo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite the hype (giant monsters vs giant robots, had to be awesome), plain boring and even more lacking in soul than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and its trully endless fighting scenes (endless to the point of becoming funny — I am sure there’s going to be a Family Guy parody between Peter Griffin and the giant chicken). I would also highlight Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a film with hardly any dialogue, a creepy and very wrong storyline, but pitch-perfect craftsmanship in the way it generates and sustains excruciating tension for 90 minutes.

Finally, a word about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: Like Greta Gerwig’s precise opposite, Cate Blanchett’s great performance as Jasmine reminded me of more than one person I know. And I’m unhappy she did.

Twenty thirteen, a year without qualities

Pardon the hyperbole. There were, of course, qualities to the year 2013, and most gripes I am about to complain about can be safely filed and tucked away as First World Problems. I am well-fed, don’t have to walk for half an hour to fetch a jug of water, and have wi-fi at home. Still, there’s this inescapable feeling of loss, of an unrealized — and one is afraid to suspect, unrealizeable — future.

A whole generation is losing love and friendship to whichever social and moral ills arise from financial insecurity — emigration, misunderstanding & strife, anxiety, shame. I had been naïve, expecting technology to help people become closer in a time people need each other most; instead, I have realized how swiftly social networking became the backbone of later anarcho-capitalism, reducing social interactions to the exchange of multimedia messages as specified by a bunch of appalling libertarian and sexist nerds living in affluent exhurbs of San Francisco, CA.

We are fully complicit in this, of course. A text message will never arise the kind of excitement one feels when receiving a postcard from a loved one. A Verdana asterisk will never feel like a kiss the way a hand-drawn star (or, if you are lucky, a smudge of lipstick) feels. Replying to a text, whichever the carrier (SMS, Facebook, Whatsapp, whatever), often feels like a chore and I too have to remind myself there’s a full human at the other end of such communication: that, no matter my guesses, motivations are unknown and neglecting a simple reply might be the thing to ruin that fellow human’s day. Needless to say, I’ve been often at the other end, feeling the full weight of the ways modern asynchronous communication turns one’s hellos into simple fragments of media to be lost in the stream like old newspaper pages or discarded brochures.

In an Austeritarian and increasingly unequal country like Portugal, the same complicity towards miscommunication also applies towards politics. I am not suggesting it is the same kind of complicity; I suggest it is exactly the same complicity. Crass obliviousness has people treating downtown Porto like a drinking Theme Park, wide-eyed at turbo-capitalist accomplishment while the BBC compares the greater city to illustrious destinations such as Havana or Detroit. Flea markets and antique shops multiplied in the last year, and while I am all for mature consumption in which things are resold and recycled or bought second-hand (sometimes I sell stuff at flea markets myself), there’s a definite feeling of chic despair in the air, as if the panzers are approaching and the new century’s midnight is nigh.

Class prejudices are key in miscommunication amongst people; Capitalism killed love, for how can anyone love someone who is looking for someone better, with a catalog at their fingertips (not specifying the metric, this was something someone once flat out told me)? Mass surveillance, as revealed by Ed Snowden, is not big news as we always, in a way, knew about it. What anarcho-capitalist tech makes us do to each other is worse: oppression became peer-to-peer, decentralized. It’s not the guys with the wiretaps, it’s us. Society’s ills, whichever one feels they are, are rebuilt every single morning when one wakes up and carries on not paying attention, not able to say hello, not able to send back an hi.


Twenty thirteen hasn’t been a good year personally. I have seen friends my age struggle with disease; and I permanentely lost someone to it. Single and almost thirty-five, it’s been hard meeting someone. I wonder if anyone else still wants to find someone to love, someone who makes one driven to full generosity. Working mostly by myself, it’s hard to get to know new people; even coffee dates are hard to arrange. Some people seem to be able to click their fingers and fix their loneliness. Not me. All that’s left is work and entertainment and (at best) something in the middle.

There have been some minor paradoxes. I’ve been doing some work as a freelance videographer, having done more in the last three months than in any moment in the last five years; all this when I had almost given up on videography. Interestingly, it all came about after my involvement with the RU+A project, a perfect example of the work-entertainment blend (at least for me), which took me to interesting places in the relationship between street artists and local politics. All this has been hard on my PhD, and working towards it must be top of my New Year resolutions.

I’m sure 2014 will be a better year. It has to.

I highly recommend Ashley Quach’s Sassquach comics. Here’s a panel from Mickey, Goofy and Donald’s Boys’ Night, in which things get rather unconfortable and bittersweet for the aging Disney characters.

I’m glad Mrs. Quach didn’t give a rat’s ass about copyright, as Nina Paley (of Sita Sings the Blues) put it in one of the most eloquent defenses of free culture I’ve read. I’m not at all a copyright abolitionist, but I believe the protected timeframes are ridiculous and that licensing should only ever be required for commercial use. Like Paley, I already dedicated a couple of videos to the public domain and intend to continue to do so when possible and the time is right. It would be very good if more artists followed suit.

The Innovation of Loneliness by Shimi Cohen, after a TED presentation by Sherry Turkle. I wouldn’t normally post this sort of thing. I tend to find motion infographics simplistic and distracting, and as for TED talks, once genuinely interesting, these now often resemble sales pitches (to say nothing of the full-on sleaze of TEDx events) for books that tell you What You Already Suspected: e.g. social networking increases feelings of isolation, loneliness, and therefore are not good for you.

As clichéd and trite as this idea now is, clichés tend by definition to be true and some do deserve sustained repeating and, indeed, ‘sharing’ on ‘social networking’ platforms. So, even though we know better, we can’t help but look at our 250 ‘friends’ on Facebook and feel we should be more ‘engaging’, that a lack of response to the stuff we ‘share’ (I promise I’ll stop with the irony quotes) must mean nobody actually cares about us. We make the mistake of confounding our unreplied (or worse — unreplied but ✓seen*) messages and unliked posts with a qualitative assessment about ourselves — the same mistake many artists make when they mistake themselves for their work.

Facebook, if I may add a few more of my trite thoughts about it, is not your old High School cafeteria, despite often resembling a virtual version of it. If you are, as I hope, someone with a sense of etiquette and democratic values, I believe that instead of feeling rejected and worthless because someone ✓sees your messages and declines to reply, perhaps it makes better sense for you to unfriend that person. (The same goes for cellphone texts, by the way.) Or at least to organize them in a ‘doghouse’ group where they are still ‘friends’ with you but blocked out of your stuff, which is perhaps worse. (I don’t believe this is too harsh. What would be said of someone who blatantly ignores ‘friends’ in face-to-face situations? Or should we consider that, as Facebook is not a virtual playground, elementary social customs and rules of etiquette do not apply?) Same thing goes for people who go and bully you publicly in comments to your posts, something a grown-up never would in real life. Ask yourself: are these people good for you? Should they see your stuff? Should you be looking at photos of all the sushi a non-responder had for lunch?

If one wishes further motivation to take socialization offline, one can also open the doors of paranoia and consider the power companies such as Facebook, Inc. have in mediating people’s interactions. (Can we completely and unarguably dismiss the possibility some FB, Inc. researcher is running cruel psychology experiments on some of its users, subtly changing the content of instant messages, labeling unreceived messages as ✓seen, etc. in order to provoke and study the reactions of the recipients? This may of course seem delusional, but in the light of recent NSA spying revelations we know that if something is technically feasible someone will do it. Think about the crimes of pharmaceutical research in impoverished countries, and how intentionally causing friends to argue because of miscommunication would be child’s play — even though one can guess it would cause a lot more outrage. Are there moratoria against such tampering with communications and against running such experiments in transnational networks? Would it be possible to enforce such a moratorium?)

It takes conscious effort to go on Facebook and not get sucked too deeply into the ‘social’ lie. I try to remind myself it is in essence just a mix between a (rather unreliable) group blog and an address book with some (again, unreliable) instant messaging features. Socializing is what happens outside of Facebook, indeed, outside any mediation. Online platforms should at best handle the introductions, the reacquaintances, and at most, outward-pointing chit-chat. So it’s nice to watch the above video and remind ourselves such a distortion of reality — loneliness, lack of ‘engagement’ with ‘friends’ — is just the smooth running of ‘social networking’ platforms.

Hence my paradoxical sharing — don’t feel obliged to like or favorite this post, though. I’ll be fine.


* When I first saw a ✓seen timestamp in a message window I thought people at FB, Inc. were trying to engineer social behaviour — i.e. forcing avoidant responders to come up with something or look bad. I think they miscalculated to what an extent some people just won’t care about what others think.

Lillian Schwartz's RGBCMY, one of the newer pieces the 86 year old digital art pioneer has made available on her Vimeo page.

I’m posting this in part because I completely forgot to mention Schwartz in a recent lecture where the work digital art pioneers of the 1960 came up, and in which I name-dropped and referenced Ken Knowlton (who invited Schwartz to Bell Labs), Charles Csuri or A. Michael Noll. Forgetting about Schwartz is more regretful as I have been trying to pass my students (who are mostly women) the idea that digital art, computing and technical stuff in general are women’s activities in every single measure as men’s, and have been taking care to mention women’s achievements in computing history ever since Augusta Ada Byron singlehandedly invented computer programming without any computer to try it on (according to Howard Rheingold, motivated by a scheme to hustle hapless betters at the horse races).

There’s something weird about the general lack of women’s interest in computing nowadays (with exceptions, obviously), given their presence in key historic developments. I suspect that is related to the fact that as computing studies formalized most found their home in Electrical Engineering departments which — as higher education expanded and universities found themselves populated by badly-educated students (witness the near-institutionalization of hazing, at least in Southern European unis) — became Boys Clubs Just for Boys. (This is the moment in which I explain that my mother, years retired, was a computer programmer. Actually she started as a clerical worker with no higher education qualifications doing data entry for our National Health Service — using tech such as latter-day punch-cards, then tape, then giant 8 inch floppies —, and advanced through multiple workplace training programs to become fluent in those technologies synonymous with enterprise computing in the eighties: COBOL, TurboPascal, dBase, SQL. In fact, I asked mum for help composing some complicated SQL queries when I was coding my Master’s dissertation project.) So nowadays, besides some conspicuous exceptions, women seem to get into computing through some kind of side door that provides an easy and straightforward narrative for their interest — through Design (as my students), through multimedia Journalism, through Entrepreneurship (the worst), through some sort of Artistic Practice, or through some very practical necessity in their Science of choice (e.g. learning R because they need to run some statistical programs on health data or whatnot). Going into computers because one is curious, because it seems interesting, because one suspects that computers allow people to do cool stuff and be creative in yet-undiscovered ways, all that may seem like opting into a deeply male-oriented and misogynistic culture, hence a dangerous place to go to.

It is therefore important to witness the current work of Lillian Schwartz. She’s still programming computers at age 86 because decades ago she found they allow her to create some cool visuals. And in that, she was way ahead of the scene.