weeknote 04

I’m finding that as I sit down to do my weeknotes, it’s as much about what’s coming up as it is about what I’ve just done. That’s probably to be expected, even though last week was exciting and relaxing and enjoying Mexico City.

The key thing is that my oral exam for my generals is tomorrow (or rather, in about 13 hours): it is a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed Eigen, Spyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. All are professors I’ve taken courses with and all are major heavyweights in their disciplines. There are very few times in your life that you get this kind of feedback — my master’s thesis defense is really the only other time — and the next time will be my dissertation defense in a couple of years. It’s terrifying. I’m working through not being defensive and remembering the critique is a good thing. Oh yeah: it is something that one passes or fails. It’s never a foregone conclusion.
Okay, so back to weeknotes. Last Saturday, I flew to Mexico City, where Jesus de Francisco was directing a commercial. I got to be an accessory to the whole enterprise (read: tourist and onlooker). Despite spending 15 years in design and creative fields, film and television are new to me. There were so many layers of things: Motion Theory (the production company), the agency, the client, the local production company in Mexico, the talent from Mexico and the UK. I watched an estate in Mexico City become a midwestern backyard and a rooftop in the Centro Histórico transform into a Brooklyn loft rooftop. I lost track of how many people were on the set — 50, perhaps? So much fast activity and thinking on one’s feet. The day that I got back, Motion Theory won a Grammy for the Black Eyed Peas video, “Boom Boom Pow” — back-to-back with the Grammy they won last year for Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” video.
Mexico City was a treat — messy and strange and neverending and exciting. I met Brett Schultz, thanks to Lia’s kind introduction, and visited Yautepec, the gallery he runs with his girlfriend Daniela. Currently, a show called “Shoot” is up, showing he work of Thomas Jeppe, Jason Nocito, Ola Rindal and Paul Schiek’s work. It’s a part of an international exhibition with different photographers showing at different galleries around the world. Brett showed me the wonderful bookstore Conejo Blanco that we happened upon on the way to the mezcaleria (mmm). I had mezcal that had been cured with chicken breast. Go figure.
The architecture blew me away, particularly the concrete architecture of Pedro Ramírez Vásquez — the architect of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. He designed the Museo Nacional de Antropología in 1963 and the amazing Basilica of Guadalupe in 1974-6, which we visited by accident and I’m so glad I didn’t miss. It turns out that Enrique is related to the architect. In fact, the city in general blew me away, and I spent a fair amount of time just looking at things: looking out the windows of the hotel at the volcanos, the buildings, the presidential helicopters, the trees, the smog, the light, the low slung residential buildings in La Condesa, the concrete architecture all over the city, the 1956 Torre Latinoamericana skyscraper. There’s nothing quite like it. I hear rumors that the next Postopolis will be held in Mexico DF– I’d love to go back.
In the next several days, after I recover from my oral exam, I’ll post pictures on Flickr from the trip. I’m also beginning to work on my dissertation proposal — it will incorporate the feedback I get tomorrow. My hope is to present it on March 10, in advance of South by Southwest and spring break at Princeton, which means that I have a very intense and busy month ahead of me.
Please think good thoughts for me between 2 and 4 p.m. EST. Wish me luck!

weeknote 02 and 03

Greetings from Mexico City! I’m on vacation, a tagalong for a commercial that Motion Theory is shooting. I keep having dreams about editing and rewriting, but I have nothing to do until February 3, when I have my oral defense. I think this is what they call vacation.
First: the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium was outstanding. This was my fourth and it was by far my favorite–maybe because it was in New York and not Redmond, WA, maybe because it focused on cities, maybe because I got to see some of my favorite people. I gave a 20 minute talk on the introduction of computing to urbanism and urban planning (see below)… the whole thing was great. I’d have more to say about it, but I came back to Princeton and put myself on total lockdown in Princeton for 8 straight days, pulling together the last of the revisions for my papers. I left my apartment maybe once a day, if that. The final day, I wrote and edited for 28 of 30 hours (1 1/2 of those I spent asleep, sort of). Writing nonstop like that is nearly impossible — it requires so much concentration, especially for academic writing. But somehow I got it done. It’s not perfect, but it will do, I hope. I’m mightily thankful for the help that I received in feedback and editing and layout: if not for that, it never would have come together.
What’s really hard about the way our generals work is needing to keep six separate topics in mind, moving from one to the next. No sooner was I finished with something on France in the 1880s than I had to move onto Pakistan in 2007, and back again to the 1960s in the US.
Here’s what I handed in.
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture (with Christopher Alexander and his interest in AI and cybernetics as a case study), 1960-75. I wrote a tidy version of this paper in May 2009. Then, I blew the whole thing up into a much bigger framework about how the computer affected architectural practice. I’ve written scores of pages that didn’t get included: the draft at one point was 50 pages long (what I handed in was 36 pages). After 11 different drafts, I whittled it down to a couple of key ideas. I convinced myself that it was okay–I would be writing a dissertation on the topic and I could reuse what I wrote and then deleted.
  • Paris & communication networks: The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884 and the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900 (something many people know I’m interested in, thanks to last year’s eTech Ignite talk). These two papers are parts of the same topic: urban-level communication in France in the late 19th century. When I first wrote the paper about Julien Guadet’s central post office in Paris in 2008, my central argument was that it functioned like a big computer atop a tangible network. That argument proved thin, so when I rewrote the paper, I instead focused on what made it a modern building and what made Guadet a modern architect — namely, the way that it served as a physical mechanism to organize and control bureaucratic processes. The pneumatic post paper, too, looked at how technology had shifted the relationship of space and time to the human body, goods, and the communication of information. I had originally thought I’d do a dissertation on 19th century communication networks but was talked out of it by the entire PhD committee. (I was blue about that, but now it’s fine: they were right.) The majority of my research for these projects involved French language engineering publications.
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s). Levittown, the famous, mass produced suburb, also mass-produced its gardens. Most bizarrely, Levitt patriarch Abraham Levitt wrote a column on gardening for the Levittown newspaper. Why? The way to maintain the value of the investment the Levitts had made in the suburb was not through the house but through the value of the landscape. The homeowners (most of whom had been apartment-dwellers and were completely unfamiliar with houses and gardening) needed to be taught to tend their gardens.
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic. For this paper, I analyzed the way that Behne used the word “apparatus” (Gerät) and the notion of defensiveness — as objects develop their own disposition. In many ways, I think Behne presaged the holistic approach to design that software finds so popular (and architecture, well, doesn’t). My research was all in German; the most painful part was reading poorly photocopied Frakturschrift (old-fashioned German writing).
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 state of emergency as a case study. I looked at cable television, satellite uplinks, and FM radio. (People who are holding crisis camps for Haiti might want to consider non-Internet media as a way of establishing communication networks — especially radio.) The idea for this paper came from a question Usman Haque asked me during my eTech presentation on India and mobile phone sharing, although what I wrote had nothing to do with it.
I’m looking forward to being able to talk next week about location scouting and casting and shooting a commercial: not my work, but someone else’s. This week’s location scouting not only introduced me to rooftops, kitchens and backyards, but also canine sociology between well-socialized and not socialized. My favorite: a golden retriever named Archie who chased oranges and carried a toy steering wheel in his mouth.

weeknote 01

Been curious about this Weeknotes habit that various people are doing on their sites. Given that it’s the start of a year, I figure it’s time to write about what I’ve been up to. I wrote this blog post on Saturday afternoon on a plane between San Francisco and Newark, after a very, very early morning flight from LAX to San Francisco. I had spent nearly three weeks in Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year — a wonderful and quiet visit.
This week’s stupid waste of time was a catastrophic hard drive failure. My computer was running Electric Sheep (my friend Spot’s generative screen saver) on Sunday night. The computer froze and when I tried to wake it, it flashed a question mark and a file folder: the drive wouldn’t mount. Just a few days earlier, I had purchased a portable hard drive in order to move music and photos off of it but stupidly, I didn’t back up my documents and my desktop. It all could have been much worse: I have backups at home in Princeton.
I’m going to need the backups because I’m finishing my submission for my generals packet. PhD programs all have qualifying or general examinations at the end of the second or beginning of the third year. The architecture PhD program at Princeton follows a different format than most: we submit six papers we’ve written from our first two years of coursework, all of which we have expanded, rewritten and edited, culminating in an oral defense before a committee of four or five professors. It’s a formidable task. The rewriting, while interesting, is a never-ending slog–way too much of my own voice in my head–on subjects I’ve hashed over for years. The defense is, of course, scary, but when it goes well, it’s one of the rare times that you get the critique and close feedback of five brilliant people on 200 pages of your work. It also tends to deal heavily with the proposed dissertation topic.
My papers deal with a wide variety of topics. My packet will include papers on:
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture, 1960-75 (also my proposed dissertation topic)
  • The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884
  • The Poste Pneumatique: the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s)
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 coup as a case study.
On the flight, I’ve been working on the talk I’m giving at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium on Tuesday. I’ll be talking about how computers got introduced to cities — it’s part of my broader research. I’m grappling with my desire to share everything I know and the limitations of a 20 minute talk. I’ll have a lot of cutting and rehearsing to do. It’ll all be easier to put together when I get my hard drive back.

Recent fascinations

In July, out of the blue, a friend’s cat attacked my leg, biting and scratching it until my friend pulled it off, without provocation. Later in the month, my bizarre allergy to Princeton’s mosquitos returned, causing a full-on systemic allergic reaction and requiring steroids. So for the start of August, here are some more pleasant thoughts: some of this week’s fascinations.

• John Cage. He’s been on the periphery of many of my fascinations for the last few years but in some research I’m doing right now, he’s a central figure. I heard a 1982 interview on Cage and his collaborator and partner, Merce Cunningham on Friday on Fresh Air and it knocked my socks off. One thing keeps coming back — his notion of paying attention to many things at a time. He celebrated it. It was at the center of some of much of his work. (What do you pay attention to in a performance of 4′ 33″?) 

• Birds. One of the last sounds I heard before leaving Princeton yesterday morning was a woodpecker. I’m rarely up at six a.m. but there it was, reverberating through the neighborhood. Later that day on the airplane, I read this quote by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space:

“However mysterious and invisible among the leaves the green-garbed woodpecker may be at times, he nevertheless becomes familiar to us. FOr a woodpecker is not a silent dweller. It is not when he sings, however, that we think of him, but when he works. Up and down the tree-trunk, his beak pecks the wood with resounding taps, and although he frequently disappears, we still hear him. He is a garden worker.

And so the woodpecker enters into my sound world and I make a salutary image of him for my own use. In my Paris apartment, when a neighbor drives nails into the wall at an undue hour, I ‘naturalize’ the noise by imagining that I am in my house in Dijon, where I have a garden. And finding everything I hear quite natural, I say to myself: ‘That’s my woodpecker at work in the acacia tree.’ This is my method for obtaining calm when things disturb me.” (Bachelard, 97)

What Bachelard says about nests was significant and beautiful. In fact, what Bachelard says about many things encompassed and encapsulated so much of the intimacy of home, of the interior. 
• Carrots that I grew. My garden kind of sucked. I got the shadiest spot, which was a strike against it. Summer was one thunderstorm after another on the East Coast. Two of the tomato plants succumbed to blight. Bunnies ate the kale and the brussels sprouts. I succeeded at radishes and mint and thyme, but how many radishes can you eat? When I talked about the things I was most hopeful about to a friend recently, carrots were one of the things I mentioned. Well, look:

and see here: not just carrots but a lot of green beans and four baby roma tomatoes, when I walked in the door with them at 6:15 a.m.:
I’m beginning to wonder whether I might want a tattoo of a green-garbed woodpecker and a bunch of ruby red carrots. It’s something to ponder. My totem animal is always a dog, but maybe it’s a bird after all?


Recently, I’ve started running. I’ve never thought of myself as an athletic person at all — my parents tell stories about me, age 3 and 4, hiding behind the gymnastic mats in the gym of my nursery school, reading books. Although I’ve joined more than one health club in the last 15 years, it’s never really stuck.

But now it has. In January, I started going to the gym. At the outset, I could only run 20 minutes on a treadmill, barely 2 miles, without getting winded. Within 6 weeks, I was able to run nearly 6 miles at the gym, and if boredom hadn’t gotten me (not to mention the MTV show America’s Next Dance Crew ending), I could’ve kept going. Now I’m running outside. Princeton has a gorgeous tow path along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. It’s scenic and car free, the crew team on the left, angry geese protecting their nests on the right. Today was a lovely 72 degree evening, one of the first truly gorgeous spring days. I ran (and for about a mile, walked) 4.36 miles. I’m not particularly fast and that’s fine. That’ll come in time. Running makes me realize that Sleater-Kinney, the Doves, New Order, the
Pretenders and My Bloody Valentine are great running music, right at my
pace, and the Happy Mondays are great for lifting spirits when I start feeling tired.

Running started out feeling like a solo activity, me against myself. Now, running feels like an entity separate from me. I need it and it also needs me. It doesn’t ask all that much of me, just that I go and do it. It gives back to me. It boosts my spirits. Not sure how this happened to me: I’m the last person in the world who expected to become a runner.

It really is a series of tubes

Just call me Fallopia. In early March, I gave an Ignite talk at eTech about pneumatic tubes– a five-minute talk where the slides advance every 15 seconds. It’s shot its way around the Internet, but I haven’t yet posted it here before. Enjoy!

Spiro Pina, 1973-2009

My dear friend Spiro Pina passed away on Tuesday, March 17, after fighting a Type IV glioma, a very aggressive form of brain tumor. He leaves behind many people who love him, not the least of which include his wife Meritxell, his three year-old daughter Eulalia, his mother, stepfather, father and grandmother, three half brothers and hundreds of friends and admirers. Spiro was a two-time Olympic competitor (’94 and ’98) with the Greek luge team. He spoke many languages and traveled everywhere.

When you lose someone who’s so young, you say all kinds of kind things. But if you were talking about Spiro, they’d all be true. He was that brilliant. He was that gracious and kind. He made you feel good being included, being in his company. He really lived the kind of life that I could only hope to emulate, but I simply would never come close. His best gifts were wisdom and compassion.

I met Spiro when he was 19 and I was 21. He was adorable, funny and kind — shining brown eyes and curly hair. We were exchange students in Montpellier, France in 1993, which is where I also met Jenn and Brett, my best friends, but we were also from the same area of St. Paul, so we knew many of the same people. Whenever I came back to the Twin Cities, I would see him — we would go to the record store, to see live music at First Avenue and at street fairs in summer, we’d enjoy a glass of wine at the New French Cafe. Usually, Brett would be there with us too.

When I think of Spiro, I think of travel. Spiro, Brett and Jenn came to visit me in New York when I moved there in 1995. Jenn and I still laugh about Spiro doing the “$240 worth of pudding” sketch from the State as we waited for brunch on a sunny Sunday in the West Village (“Awww yeeeah.”). In November 1998, he stayed in my apartment in San Francisco, meeting me there when I returned from a trip to Oslo. “Before I say anything else,” he said after I walked in the door, “I should tell you that Jesse Ventura won the gubernatorial election. He’s the governor of Minnesota.”

Not long after that, he told me and Brett about meeting Meritxell. He was gobsmacked, smitten. It was beautiful. And it can’t have been much later that (maybe a year) that he said he was going to ask her to marry him. Brett and I were in Barcelona with at least 200 other people over Thanksgiving 2002, celebrating their wedding in a church in the central city and a reception at the beach.

There’s one picture that sticks in my head. It’s one I only glimpsed for a moment at the end of his wedding: he and Meritxell together, brilliant sunlight, and he jumping up and clicking his heels.

Spiro, I miss you. I’m sorry your family doesn’t get to hold onto you as long as they should. I’m sorry that you had to go. The world has been a much more ebullient, beautiful place with you in it.

SXSW redux coming soon

Just wanted to note that I’ve not forgotten to post a recap of the Tangible Interactions in Urban Spaces panel we put together at SXSW. A few life things (see next post) have happened. I’ll post this week.