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.