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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

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The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.

Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.

Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.

Astounding 3D effects projected onto a building's facade

[Wow. -egg]
Astounding 3D effects projected onto a building's facade:

This LG mobile phone ad "event" projected a startling and well-conceived montage of 3D effects onto a building's facade in Berlin. It's all very spectacular and beautiful -- pretty amazing for an ad (though I can imagine that if a whole city were taken over by this sort of advertising every night, it would be rather tedious). Meanwhile, I seriously covet that projector, which is blasting out enough lumens that I wonder if it incinerates small insects that stray into the path of the beam. I could get into serious mischief with one of those.

LG Optimus Hyper Facade in Berlin - Long Version

(Thanks, Dad!)

Green army man costume

Green army man costume:

Harrison Jones created this fabulous green army man costume (which included a coating of green latex paint on his skin, yowch, suffer for your art!), and worked a full shift at a grocery store while so attired:

Harrison started by picking out the perfect green tarp, then taking it to the hardware store and having them color match a quart of semi-gloss interior latex paint. He then painted the air soft helmet, boots, and gun with several coats of the green paint. Next, he cut out cardboard in an oval shape, painted it green, and used duct tape in a loop to stick to his boots.

As for the uniform, he picked out a long-sleeve shirt and a pair of pants he was willing to sacrifice, and cut them both along the seams. Harrison then spread the chopped shirt and pants out on the tarp, pinned them to the tarp, and cut around the fabric, leaving about a half inch of extra tarp (the sleeves were done separately). He used duct tape to “sew” the tarp back together, leaving half of the tape’s sticky side exposed and putting it on the inside of the seam, and then connecting the matching part of the tarp, adjusting to the right fit.

Rad Green Army Man Costume

Lights, crystal blocks and music: Prisma 1666

Lights, crystal blocks and music: Prisma 1666:

Prisma 1666 involves beams of light, prisms, and an app to control them. [Wonwei via The Verge]

New Thomas Doyle dioramae: freaky floating houses and apocalyptic craters

[My god, this is awesome. -egg]
New Thomas Doyle dioramae: freaky floating houses and apocalyptic craters:

Thomas Doyle (previously) has a show at LeBasse Projects in Culver City; the gallery of miniature dioramae is mouth-wateringly apocalyptically magical.

Preview: Thomas Doyle – “Surface to Air” @ LeBasse Projects

Understanding McDonald's as a commodities broker with a restaurant sideline: the McRib

Understanding McDonald's as a commodities broker with a restaurant sideline: the McRib:

Willy Staley's "A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage," is a lyrical, insightful conspiracy theory about the appearance and disappearance of McDonalds's McRib sandwich. Staley argues that the McRib's appearance correlates with falls in the pork futures market, and represents a way for McD's to cash in on cheap pork, representing a kind of triumph of restaurant automation, logistical acumen, and financial engineering. In Staley's view, McDonald's is only secondarily a restaurant, and primarily conducts the business of a commodities brokerage.

I've long been fascinated with injection-molded protein slurry masquerading as some recognizable foodstuff. I once proposed a line of perverse vegan aerosol meat substitutes like "I can't believe it's not organ meat" and "I can't believe it's not marrow bones" that would come as a soy spray in a mousse can whose nozzle mated with a dishwasher/microwave-safe mold (with plastic "bones" as appropriate) that you could nuke for a minute before ejecting the piping hot reformed slurry on a plate and popping the mold right into the dishwasher.

Fast food involves both hideously violent economies of scale and sad, sad end users who volunteer to be taken advantage of. What makes the McRib different from this everyday horror is that a) McDonald’s is huge to the point that it’s more useful to think of it as a company trading in commodities than it is to think of it as a chain of restaurants b) it is made of pork, which makes it a unique product in the QSR world and c) it is only available sometimes, but refuses to go away entirely.

If you can demonstrate that McDonald’s only introduces the sandwich when pork prices are lower than usual, then you’re but a couple logical steps from concluding that McDonald’s is essentially exploiting a market imbalance between what normal food producers are willing to pay for hog meat at certain times of the year, and what Americans are willing to pay for it once it is processed, molded into illogically anatomical shapes, and slathered in HFCS-rich BBQ sauce.

The McRib was, at least in part, born out of the brute force that McDonald’s is capable of exerting on commodities markets. According to this history of the sandwich, Chef Arend created the McRib because McDonald’s simply could not find enough chickens to turn into the McNuggets for which their franchises were clamoring. Chef Arend invented something so popular that his employer could not even find the raw materials to produce it, because it was so popular. “There wasn’t a system to supply enough chicken,” he told Maxim. Well, Chef Arend had recently been to the Carolinas, and was so inspired by the pulled pork barbecue in the Low Country that he decided to create a pork sandwich for McDonald’s to placate the frustrated franchisees.

A Conspiracy of Hogs: The McRib as Arbitrage

(via Kottke)

(Image: McDonalds McRib Sandwich, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from io_burn's photostream)

Taleb: Banker bonuses should be banned

Taleb: Banker bonuses should be banned:

Nassim Nicholas "Black Swan" Taleb has an NYT op-ed arguing that the best way secure the financial system from future collapse is to eliminate bankers' bonuses altogether. Taleb says bonuses reward risk-taking behavior without any counterbalancing punishment for bad risks, which provides an incentive for bankers to take stupid risks and hide their mistakes with financial engineering and book-cooking.

Bonuses are particularly dangerous because they invite bankers to game the system by hiding the risks of rare and hard-to-predict but consequential blow-ups, which I have called “black swan” events. The meltdown in the United States subprime mortgage market, which set off the global financial crisis, is only the latest example of such disasters.

Consider that we trust military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail. For bankers, it is the opposite: a bonus if they make short-term profits and a bailout if they go bust. The question of talent is a red herring: Having worked with both groups, I can tell you that military and security people are not only more careful about safety, but also have far greater technical skill, than bankers.

The ancients were fully aware of this upside-without-downside asymmetry, and they built simple rules in response. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi’s code specified this: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

This was simply the best risk-management rule ever.

End Bonuses for Bankers

Medieval marketing

Medieval marketing:

Grant McCracken, a research affiliate at MIT and the author of Chief Culture Officer, writes about the appeal of "hidden messages" in popular culture. Fnord.

The medieval world took for granted that the universe was filled with
secret messages, placed there by God and the correspondences on which
the world was built. What did not come from God or nature was made by
man in the form of emblems, icons, and insignia insinuated into public
life. The home of Sir Francis Bacon was covered with arcana. Only
people with a keen eye and a university education could make sense of

By the 20th century, all of this was stripped out by the modernist
impulse that said form should be about manifest function, not secret
meaning. This world was rendered perfectly clear, rational, and
transparent. No decoding necessary. Consider Mies van der Rohe's
Seagram building. Or Charles and Ray Eames' lounge chair. What you saw
was what you got.

Marketing was created in this moment. And the idea was complete
transparency. Marketing came to stand for big, bold, simple messages,
fired repeatedly at a mass target. "Keep it simple, stupid" was the
order of the day. This was a world of absolute clarity and shameless

How things change. The 21st century loves a puzzle. We have the skill
and the patience. We have quicker eyes. No couch potatoes, we. Perhaps
it's that we now live with so much noise that we are better at
decoding signals. We are ready for secret messages. To judge from the
rest of popular culture, we are hungry for them.

Medieval Marketing (Thanks, Dale!)

Hulkmania to the nth

Hulkmania to the nth: Welcome to the Hulkursion loop. [Moustair via Matt Haughey and Mike Monteiro]

NYT: Our High-Tech Health-Care Future;jsessionid=8C48D213EC16ED4F625468F8E3A80AF4.w5?a=865357&f=28&sub=Contributor

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Reality Television and American Culture : The New Yorker

by Kelefa Sanneh MAY 9, 2011

On January 6, 1973, the anthropologist Margaret Mead published a startling little essay in TV Guide. Her contribution, which wasn't mentioned on the cover, appeared in the back of the magazine, after the listings, tucked between an advertisement for Virginia Slims and a profile of Shelley Winters. Mead's subject was a new Public Broadcasting System series called "An American Family," about the Louds, a middle-class California household. "Bill and Pat Loud and their five children are neither actors nor public figures," Mead wrote; rather, they were the people they portrayed on television, "members of a real family." Producers compressed seven months of tedium and turmoil (including the corrosion of Bill and Pat's marriage) into twelve one-hour episodes, which constituted, in Mead's view, "a new kind of art form"—an innovation "as significant as the invention of drama or the novel."

"An American Family" was a hit, and Lance Loud, the oldest son, became a celebrity, perhaps the world's first openly gay TV star. But for decades "An American Family" looked like an anomaly; by 1983, when HBO broadcast a follow-up documentary on the Louds, Mead's "new kind of art form" seemed more like an artifact of an older America. Worthy heirs to the Louds arrived in 1992, with the début of the MTV series "The Real World," which updated the formula by adding a dash of artifice: each season, a handful of young adults were thrown together in a house, and viewers got to know them as they got to know one another. It wasn't until 2000, though, that Mead's grand claim started to look prescient. That year, a pair of high-profile, high-concept summer series nudged the format into American prime time: "Big Brother," a Dutch import, was built around surveillance-style footage of competitors locked in a house; "Survivor," a Swedish import, isolated its stars by shipping them somewhere warm and distant, where they participated in faux tribal competitions. Both of these were essentially game shows, but they doubled as earthy anthropological experiments, and they convinced viewers and executives alike that television could provide action without actors.

We are now more than a decade into the era that Mead, who died in 1978, saw coming. "I think we need a new name for it," she wrote, and in the past decade we have mainly settled on "reality television," although not without trepidation. "Reality" is, if not quite a misnomer, a provocation—a reminder of the various constraints and compromises that define the form. Certainly, "reality television" is an amorphous category; Mark Andrejevic, a cultural theorist, notes that "there isn't any one definition that would both capture all the existing genres and exclude other forms of programming such as the nightly news or daytime game shows." If Mead were alive today, she might be surprised at the diversity of the form, which has proved equally hospitable to glamorous competitions, like "American Idol," and to homely documentaries, like "Pawn Stars," which depicts the staff and clientele of a Las Vegas pawnshop. But she might also be surprised to see how many programs hew to the "American Family" formula: one of MTV's biggest current hits is the riveting "Teen Mom" franchise, which follows a handful of young mothers as they negotiate shifting cultural realities and stubborn biological ones, building American families of their own. This season, one of the stars, Chelsea, unloaded the dishwasher in her new house, watched closely by her father, who had agreed to pay the rent.

"I'm just standing here, watching you pretend like you're a little housewife," he said, fondly.

"I am," she said, and then she drew a fine distinction that any scholar of kinship structures would appreciate. "A housemom."

One of the biggest differences between today's reality television and its 1973 antecedent is the genre's status. Having outgrown PBS, it has inherited the rotten reputation that once attached to the medium itself. In an era of televised precocity—ambitious HBO dramas, cunningly self-aware sitcoms—reality shows still provide a fat target for anyone seeking symptoms or causes of American idiocy; the popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart. The same people who brag about having seen every episode of "Friday Night Lights" will brag, too, that they have never laid eyes on "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Reality television is the television of television.

No surprise, then, that a counter-movement has arisen, in the form of books that urge us to take these shows more seriously. Jennifer L. Pozner is a journalist and activist, and in the past decade she has watched, by her count, "more than a thousand hours of unscripted programming," which is a lot if you think of it as work, but not much—two hours per week, which may be less than the average American watches—if you don't. For Pozner, it certainly was work. The book she wrote about her experiment is "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV" (Seal; $16.95), and, halfway through, she sums up her verdict: "I've found most of it painful ('Dr. 90210'), aggravating ('The Bachelor'), or mind-numbingly boring ('The Hills')." Still, her target audience is her fellow-viewers, not her fellow-activists, which lends the book a pleasingly unpretentious attitude: readers unfamiliar with Schadenfreude can find a definition in the footnotes, but readers unfamiliar with "Paradise Hotel" are on their own. (For the record, it was a complicated 2003 show, on Fox, in which the evolving cohabitational arrangements of dozens of bronzed young people helped determine which one would be expelled next.)

Having logged those thousand hours, Pozner can attest that reality shows have a tendency to blur together into a single orgy of joy and disappointment and recrimination. In her view, this is no coincidence: the shows are constructed to reinforce particular social norms, she argues, and she finds examples from across the reality spectrum. There is an expectedly acerbic analysis of "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire," one of the first shots fired in the current reality revolution (it aired on Fox, as a one-time special, in February, 2000), in which the winner of a televised beauty pageant agreed to marry, sight unseen, a "multimillionaire"—who, it later emerged, was possibly a thousandaire, and definitely the target of a restraining order filed by a former girlfriend. That show was a gleeful train wreck, powered by its female contestants' desperation to be picked, which is to say, married. Pozner detects a similar anxiety in a more venerable show, "The Bachelor," which recently ended its fifteenth season on ABC. Although the producers pile on signifiers of romance—ball gowns, candles, roses, breathy declarations—the weekly eliminations are what give the show its cruel but satisfying rhythm. Pozner zeroes in on a contestant who, despite having been a vegetarian for twelve years, accepted a piece of lamb from the man she was trying to impress:

"My stomach will probably never be the same, but at least I touched his hand," she said, grateful for crumbs. After she got the heave-ho, she batted her big brown eyes at the camera and moaned: "You wanna see a girl that's crushed, you got her."

For Pozner, this figure—the woman "crushed" for our amusement—is the driving force behind much reality television. She charts the various programs that punish women for their alleged greed, like "Joe Millionaire," in which the titular millionaire finally reveals himself to be more or less broke, and "Charm School," which promised to "tear down and rebuild" its female participants. She is aghast at the cosmetic-surgery makeover show "The Swan," which she calls "the most sadistic reality series of the decade." (The second and final season was broadcast in 2004, so Pozner's superlative arrives too late to be of any use to the show's publicists.) And she is scarcely kinder to "What Not to Wear," a nonsurgical makeover show in which, she writes, "an ethnically and economically diverse string of women are ridiculed for failing to conform to a single upper-middle-class, mainstream-to-conservative, traditionally feminine standard of fashion and beauty." For Pozner, the ridicule is more vivid, and therefore more effective, than whatever rote transformation comes next.

This idea—that pernicious images and ideas are more powerful than benign ones—shapes Pozner's analysis in every case, and explains how she manages to extract clear messages from messy exchanges. To demonstrate that reality television promotes the idea of female incompetence, she mentions a particularly stubborn and notably unsympathetic man from "Wife Swap," who informed his temporary wife, a police detective, that gender-integrated police departments "put people's lives at risk." But she doesn't mention that the man recanted a few scenes later, after a vigorous training session with some female officers.

In the same vein, Pozner tells the story of Toccara Jones, a curvilinear model—she describes herself as "vivacious and voluptuous"—who was the sixth runner-up on the third season of "America's Next Top Model." In a pitch-perfect impression of a "Top Model" partisan, Pozner derides the verdict of Tyra Banks, the show's materfamilias (who declared Jones to have "lost her drive" and "checked out"), and lists various post-show successes: "To the rest of the mainstream media, Toccara is recognized as one of the most successful African-American plus-size models working today. To reality TV producers, she's just a fat Black girl who needs to lose weight." But isn't she pointing to one of the form's greatest strengths? Reality stars, unlike their scripted counterparts, outlive their shows, and sometimes find ways to defy them. For millions of viewers, the story of Lance Loud began in 1973, but it didn't really end until his death, from hepatitis C and H.I.V., in 2001, at the dawn of the reality-television era that he helped inspire.

There is a taboo that left-leaning critics of popular culture are obliged to observe: never criticize the populace. Pozner tries her best to honor this proscription, following the trail blazed, half a century ago, by the theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who lamented that "the deceived masses" were easy marks for a cynical and self-perpetuating "culture industry." Because she writes about reality television, Pozner must observe this taboo twice over—the deceived masses are represented by the people onscreen, too. Starting in 2004, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, an African-American contestant on Donald Trump's business competition show, "The Apprentice," became reality television's preëminent villain, possessed of an impressive ability to enrage the people around her; Pozner scrambles to explain this phenomenon without casting aspersions on either the antiheroine or her legions of detractors. First, she assures us that, whatever inspired Manigault-Stallworth's "Black villainess diva" reputation, "it wasn't her behavior." Then, two pages later, she allows that "Omarosa has capitalized on a virulent stereotype about Black women, a path 'Apprentice' producers laid out for her." She is eager to let audiences off the hook: in her account, "American Idol" (which she finds mean-spirited) was a success because energetic cross-promotion "guaranteed ratings gold," and "Survivor" was a success "largely because the endless, from-all-corners buzz made viewership seem almost like a cultural imperative."

Because Pozner isn't really interested in viewers, she doesn't have much to say about why they reject some reality shows while embracing others. And she doesn't distinguish among passing fads, like "Joe Millionaire" (which lost eighty per cent of its audience between its first season finale and its second—also its last); hardy perennials, like "The Bachelor"; and obscurities, like "When Women Rule the World" (which was scrapped by Fox months in advance of its scheduled première, though the series was eventually broadcast in the U.K.). She isn't really interested in the shows' participants, either, and, despite her attempts to shield them, sometimes they become collateral damage in her assaults on greedy executives. "Producers build on our derision by carefully casting women who are, let's just say, in no danger of being recruited to join Mensa," she writes. This judgment, at least, has the virtue of clarity: producers are bad, though probably smart; participants are dumb, though possibly good.

Viewers wanting a subtler verdict should seek out "Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity" (Duke; $23.95), Brenda R. Weber's strange and thoughtful survey of makeover shows. Defined loosely, this category, built around twinned narratives of physical and spiritual transformation, includes a wide range of reality programming: not only "The Swan" and "What Not to Wear" but also "Dog Whisperer," which tames rowdy pets; "The Biggest Loser," a weight-loss competition; and "American Idol," which is, after all, about the transformation of amateurs into pop stars. (Even "The Real World" is, in some sense, a makeover show, precisely because of its artificiality: having been thrown together in a strange house with strange people, the participants generally assume that the experience will be educational, or even therapeutic.) Weber, a professor of gender studies at Indiana University, takes care to avoid snap judgments. Her approach is informed by the work of the feminist scholar Kathy Davis, who has rejected the idea that cosmetic surgery and other aesthetic interventions are inherently or purely oppressive. Weber quotes one of Davis's insights with approval: "Women are not merely the victims of the terrors visited upon them by the beauty system. On the contrary, they partake in its delights as well." The thought of women renovating their wardrobes or their faces inspires in Weber not horror but a tantalizing question: "Why shouldn't the painful vestiges of class and circumstance that write themselves on the body be not only overwritten but erased altogether?"

Weber sees in these makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation, one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition "from Before to After." Weber notices that, on scripted television, makeovers are usually revealed to be temporary or unnecessary: "characters often learn that though a makeover is nice, they were really just fine in their Before states." On reality television, by contrast, makeovers are urgent and permanent; "the After-body, narratively speaking, stands as the moment of greatest authenticity." We have moved from the regressive logic of the sitcom, in which nothing really happens, to the recursive logic of the police procedural, in which the same thing keeps happening—the same detectives, solving and re-solving the same crimes. In fact, Weber points out that a number of makeover shows present their subjects as crimes to be solved: in the British version of "What Not to Wear," makeover candidates line up in front of a one-way mirror, like perpetrators awaiting identification; "Style by Jury," a Canadian show, begins and ends with the target facing a jury of her peers.

Makeover shows inevitably build to a spectacular moment when "reveal" becomes a noun, and yet the final product is often unremarkable: a woman with an up-to-date generic haircut, wearing a jacket that fits well; a man who is chubby but not obese; a dog with no overwhelming urge to bare its fangs. The new subject is worth looking at only because we know where it came from, which means that, despite the seeming decisiveness of the transformation, the old subject never truly disappears. "The After highlights the dreadfulness of the Before," Weber writes. "In makeover logic, no post-made-over body can ever be considered separate from its pre-made-over form." She might have added that no makeover is ever really finished; there is no After who is not, in other respects, a Before—maybe your dog no longer strains at the leash, but are you sure that sweater doesn't make you look old and tired? Are you sure your thighs wouldn't benefit from some blunt cannulation? Weber's makeover nation is an eerie place, because no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.

The transformation, however partial, of a Before into an After usually requires accomplices, who may go through their own transformation during the show, "from cranky witches to good friends to benevolent fairy godmothers (or superheroes)," as Weber puts it. Often, these accomplices, like their fairy-tale counterparts, live outside the social worlds of the people they help. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which began its run in 2003, epitomized this tendency: the title implied (and the show seemed to confirm) that the makeover targets needed a kind of help that no member of their tribe—the "straight guy" tribe—could provide. Weber argues that the "Queer Eye" experts, like other gay makeover agents, "function as a foil against which to read the emerging hegemonic masculinity of the made-over man." But, surely, their marked difference is often related to the authority they project. (Think of Simon Cowell, for years the toughest "American Idol" judge: his British accent and his status as a lifelong non-singer made his judgments seem all the more definitive.) "Mostly male doctors on plastic surgery shows are relentless about the horrors of looking masculine," Weber writes, and yet some of the same doctors who upbraid "masculine" women playfully defy gender norms: Robert Rey, the celebrity-obsessed star of "Dr. 90210," is known for his smooth skin, and for the sleeveless scrub shirts he prefers, many of which are equipped with plunging V-necks, the better to display his pectoral cleavage.

Sometimes these agents of change seem purposely to sabotage their own messages. In her book, Pozner reserves special condemnation for "Charm School," the VH1 program that purported to offer social rehabilitation to ill-mannered dating-show veterans; she protests that the "smug, white, wealthy 'dean,' Keith Lewis"—a modelling agent and pageant judge—"offered only condescension." Weber, more astutely, argues that arbiters like Lewis function effectively as parodies of authority: "the lessons are so shallow, the uptight behavior of the experts so much less engaging than the ebullience of the subjects, that these 'learn to be proper' shows in many ways rebuke the very transformations they portray." A show like "Charm School" is, at heart, an expression of the audience's strong but mixed feelings about makeovers in general: we like the idea of melioration, but how much change do we really want? Weber returns to this question at the end of her book, when, in an autobiographical turn, she describes a visit to an orthodontist, who offers to straighten her teeth for five thousand dollars. She declines, but finds herself tempted—and she can't help but notice that the orthodontist might benefit from otoplasty to pin back his ears. And so she returns, implicitly, to the question of whether the body's "painful vestiges of class and circumstance" can be overwritten or erased. The answer is yes—but not for free and not for good.

In Weber's estimation, the most successful makeover show of all time has been off the air for almost half a century. It was called "Queen for a Day," and during its long run—from 1945 to 1957, on the radio, and from 1956 to 1964, on television—it gave hundreds of women the chance to testify to the arduousness of their lives; the woman whose tale of perseverance earned the most applause was awarded a ceremonial enthronement and an assortment of prizes. Weber renders this plot in economic terms, writing that the show "established a mediated affective economy where miserable subjects trade stories of abjection for the bounty promised through televisual benevolence." The terms have barely changed in fifty years: this kind of exchange still forms the basis of the reality-television economy. In the view of Mark Andrejevic, the cultural theorist, basic models of economic exchange can help explain not only how the form works but why it emerged with such force when it did.

Andrejevic's contribution to the field, "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched," arrived in 2004, relatively early in the reality boom, by the slow-motion standards of academe. For Andrejevic, reality television is a logical outgrowth of the rise, in the nineteen-nineties, of "interactive media," which made it easier for consumers to provide instant and constant feedback to corporations. In this way, commercial advertising was joined with its obverse, commercial surveillance: in one, companies pay to have you watch; in the other, companies pay to have you watched. The reality era began in earnest just as the dot-com boom peaked, and if the shows felt uncannily "real," Andrejevic says, it was not because they depicted behavior that was somehow authentic but because they were structured in a way that mirrored viewers' lives:

The Illinois housewife who agrees to move into a house where her every move can be watched by millions of strangers to compete for a cash prize exhibits more than an incidental similarity (albeit on a different scale) to the computer user who allows Yahoo to monitor her web-browsing habits in exchange for access to a free e-mail account.

Although reality television is often mocked for its frivolity, Andrejevic argues that its success is symptomatic of an age in which labor and leisure are growing ever harder to separate. He tells the tale of DotComGuy, a briefly popular Internet celebrity, who planned to live his life online, funded by corporate sponsors. "To the extent that his life is the show, he is working all the time," Andrejevic writes, and the same could be said of anyone who appears on any reality show. Pozner asserts that "on series from the 'Real Housewives' franchise to MTV's 'Paris Hilton's My New BFF,' 'real life' is all about leisure." In fact, Hilton's show, in which she claimed to be searching for a B.F.F. (best friend forever), was an example of how reality television turns social activities into professional ones. Similarly, the "Real Housewives" shows, despite the name, feature very few actual housewives and lots of working women (not all wives or mothers), every one of them eager to sacrifice time, not to mention privacy, for a small payment and a less small portion of notoriety. This is the opposite of leisure, and it may also be a sign of the end of leisure—the end, that is, of our ability to spend long stretches happily engaged in non-work. If this possibility makes us anxious, we're not alone: judging from their frequent and intricate disagreements, the various "real housewives" are feeling a little anxious, too.

Andrejevic quotes Walter Benjamin, who, in 1935, distilled from his wanderings in the Paris arcades an axiom: "The utopian images that accompany the emergence of the new always concurrently reach back to the ur-past." For Andrejevic, this is key to an understanding of the strong sense of nostalgia that pervades reality television, which often promises to give us glimpses of the way things might once have been. Hence the pseudo-tribal imagery of "Survivor," which transports participants to an ersatz village, far from home, where the logic of the surveillance economy becomes harder to distinguish from the law of the jungle. In "Big Brother," the contestants share a house that is modern except for the general absence of digital screens; it is, as Andrejevic says, "a mass media experiment in watching people deprived of the mass media." Shows like "The Bachelor" revive old-fashioned ideas of courtship and marriage, just as "American Idol" validates an earlier generation's idea of pop stardom.

In 2004, when Andrejevic's book was published, the conventions of reality television were still being codified. Some early scholars emphasized the form's debt to "Cops," the longest-running reality show of all. It is now in its twenty-third season, on Fox, and the format has barely budged: viewers ride with police officers as they drive around, in search of perpetrators. "Cops" makes it easy to think of a video camera as a weapon, there to keep the peace and to discipline violators. "Big Brother," with its winking title, also emphasized the regulatory power of surveillance: there were low-resolution cameras hidden in the walls and tucked behind the plants, offering nearly total scrutiny of the house and its residents; fans could watch footage online, in real time. It's now clear, though, that the surveillance model was overblown; the future of reality television didn't belong to hidden cameras and fugitive subjects. "Big Brother," though it lumbers on, has never been very popular in America, and its grainy video and relaxed pace—the housemates, like inmates, are always searching for ways to kill time—seem more dated with every year. "Cops" has been succeeded by shows like "Police Women of Cincinnati," on TLC, which shunts aside the shadowy perpetrators to zoom in on the telegenic women who pursue them.

There is no longer any need for surveillance. The nightly schedules are full of brightly lit reality dramas and comedies, driven by participants eager for screen time, and increasingly good at justifying their share. Andrejevic was amused by our eagerness to "hand over airtime to the real people," even though putting them on the air makes them celebrities, which is to say, unreal. The various "Real Housewives" shows have gradually revealed themselves to be makeover shows, too, transforming the most popular cast members into self-sufficient celebrities. (Bethenny Frankel, from the New York cast, has branched out with a series of books, a low-calorie margarita drink, and a couple of spinoffs.) The celebrification of the genre has weakened the participants' link to the viewers, while underscoring their similarity to other famous people. The celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly recently ran a cover depicting three of the young women from "Teen Mom," accompanied by a headline in caution-sign yellow: "DESTROYED BY FAME." The article quotes an unnamed "insider," who offers a barbed opinion of one of the moms: "Jenelle acts like she's a star." Even the Loud family eventually received a glamorous makeover: HBO has just broadcast "Cinema Verite," a feature film based on "An American Family," starring Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, and James Gandolfini. Margaret Mead was right, in the end: reality television was—is—a new kind of art form. What she couldn't have predicted was that, as it aged, it would come to look more and more like the old ones.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

3D printed exploratory spiders

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3D printed exploratory spiders

Fraunhofer's 3D printed exploration spiders are intended for use "as an exploratory tool in environments that are too hazardous for humans, or too difficult to get to." They use hydraulic bellows to execute advanced maneuvers, including jumping:

With its long extremities, the spider has a range of ways to get around. Some models can even jump. This is possible using hydraulically operated bellows drives that serve as joints and keep limbs mobile. With no muscles to stretch their legs, these creatures build up high levels of body pressure that they then use to pump fluid into their limbs. Shooting fluid into the legs extends them. "We took this mobility principle and applied it to our bionic, computer-controlled lightweight robot. Its eight legs and body are also fitted with elastic drive bellows that operate pneumatically to bend and extend its artificial limbs," explains Dipl.-Ing. Ralf Becker, a scientist at IPA. The components required for locomotion, such as the control unit, valves and compressor pump, are located in the robot's body; the body can also carry various measuring devices and sensors, depending on the application at hand. Hinges interoperate with the bellows drives so that the legs can move forward and turn as needed. Diagonally opposed members move simultaneously, too. Bending the front pairs of legs pulls the robotic spider's body along, while stretching the rear extremities pushes it.

High-tech spider for hazardous missions

(via JWZ)

Magic Makes Time

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Magic Makes Time

The 9am El Salvadorian sun beat down like a drum. And here we were trying to move a two-ton mound of dirt with nothing but the most primitive tools.

In my hand was a shovel. The blade of the rusty, cracked spade bit down again and again. Every other scoop it would hit a rock, decelerate to zero, and send a jolt through its handle. I wanted nothing more than to sit in the shade and sip fresh green coconuts. But we had many more hours and days to go and the sun had hours more of rising to do. I kept reaching for a phone that was not there to distract me from the discomfort. In its place, I retreated into a day dream filled with air conditioners, coca cola in frosty bottles and orange creamsicles; dump trucks, caterpillars and back hoes of cold, scratched up metal. And the beach. Which I could get to quicker if only we had better tools. Better technology.


A month ago I boarded a plane from California to El Salvador. I was going to surf. But I was also going help build the region's first high school through Surf For Life, a non profit that tucks surf vacations inside of charity work. Most of the rest of the gang came from my sleepy, foggy neighborhood, the Sunset, which is like a little secret beach town inside of San Francisco.

There's Danny Hess, the gentle giant and former Ventura, California lifeguard who ended up pioneering the modern wooden surfboard. His wife Erin Kunkel, a photographer who took the better photos in this story. And Jay Nelson, an artist who is famous for his treehouses and fantasy techno-surf vehicles that evoke buckminster fuller's dynocar and geodesic domes.*

I travelled with a bright blue duffel bag filled with gadgets donated for the school's first computer lab: laptops from Lenovo, cameras from