weeknote 05

It’s the second snowstorm in a week and right now, it’s the strange moment where I can feel the pressure change and sense the rest of the front that’s about to hit. They’ve closed Princeton today–in fact, they’ve closed most of the East Coast, from the sound of it, which also means that Enrique’s dissertation proposal won’t happen till next week and the Richard Sennet-Eyal Weizman-Teddy Cruz lecture will be rescheduled for tomorrow. During Saturday’s snowstorm, I baked bread, made coq au vin for hours in the slow cooker, started sewing a dress, and dyed my hair. Today will be geared more toward work and toward my own dissertation proposal.

First, I passed my general exam! It was a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed EigenSpyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. It was very positive. I found it fascinating to see how the commitee drew links and connections through the body of work I had presented. It was apparent to them that I had a method and a clear set of interests (though the method is not as clear to me as it is to them–I inhabit it). They actually said that they enjoyed the papers — that’s the word they used. The committee thought my work needed to be theorized better and that media theory seemed to be useful (I have a meeting with the fabulous Tom Levin tomorrow to discuss). They thought my research paper — the one that will undergirds my dissertation — was the weakest, but I knew that: I had gone through 11 drafts of it and it was out of control. But that indicates to me that I have found the right topic for a doctoral dissertation. Overall, I got useful feedback that I can apply to both the larger scale of my work and the smaller scale.
The whole process of the general exam, from selecting papers to revising and expanding, to editing and presenting, really boosted my confidence — something I did not expect. It made me realize that I have a genuine body of work rich with research questions. It gave me a chance to see the common threads passing through the work: the things that tease me intellectually and won’t let me go. I now have all of these ideas of things I look forward to working on in a career, not just a dissertation.
I’m also ready to get back to writing, not just for my own work but out in the world. Maybe it’s time to start writing a column somewhere? We’ll see.
I’m grappling with two different directions on my dissertation proposal. On one hand, I can write about the introduction of the computer to architecture. There are three themes: methodology, representation, and generation. But really, it’s the generative systems that I think are really interesting. I have an idea about how architectural computing becomes computing architecture, how it on one hand ends up as ubiquitous computing, and on the other, as spatial metaphors for computing. There are reasons to do both: one is a straightforward dissertation; the other really ties together my big questions but might be harder to convince an architectural committee. I’m helped by the fact that much of these things happened within MIT’s architecture school, where the Architecture Machine Group existed and the Media Lab still resides (even if they don’t cross over at all with the history/theory/criticism part of the school). Talking with my advisor, Christine Boyer, will help: she listens well, she was at MIT in the period that I’m researching, and she’s done a good job of steering me the right way.
I keep coming back to haptic and physical engagement with space. Nicholas Negroponte & Richard Bolt’s 1977 Spatial Data Management System is really interesting in that it gave rise to the desktop metaphor, but what really intrigues me is the importance of “motor-memory reinforcement” — the notion that by physically putting something somewhere, or by going somewhere, it reinforces memory. They give the example of Simonides, the Greek poet famous for his ability to memorize long oratory. Negroponte explained in 1986, “His secret was to tie each successive part of a to-be-remembered poem or speech to a specific locale within the mental floor plan of either an actual or imagined temple. For each successive subsection of the talk to be given, the orator would mentally walk from place to place within the temple, rehearsing the appropriate material before some specific piece of statuary.” (Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, 1987, 138). This points out what eBook readers get wrong: the physical, haptic engagement of reading. It also points out a key question of what “future of reading” projects miss out on: the physics of authorship.
There’s so much possibility in that idea! It’s not about creating a metaphor, or a bookshelf on a device — that’s done and usually, done poorly (the iPad is no exception). It’s also not a gestural mode of interaction with a device — but what would happen if we created things that help us learn by our own movements? I’m going to work more on that in the coming days and share my thoughts about it.
I’m going to light some candles, invoke some hygge, and watch the snow fall… and write. I’ll let you know where this puts me next week.

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.