Friday, March 9, 2012


A good wristwatch is a valuable thing. Unlike any other jewelry, or trinkets, however, it's not just valuable as a commodity object, but it has functional value, although the nature of that value has certainly changed over time. The wrist-watch is like the wrist-mounted heads-up display; it's a quick way to get valuable information, and it's there whenever you need it. And, what's more, it's a little moving machine that you can acceptably take with you everywhere, a thing with a beating heart: and I tried to take a lawnmower on the bus, but they wouldn't allow it.

Georg Simmel once remarked that the adage "Time is money" is literal: the worker's punch-cards were visible representations of time being taken from you, and money gathering in your bank account (or not). In the same way that the wall-clock was mounted above the milling-machine in the workshop, or above the water-cooler, it expressed labors taken, pains gained; it demarcated physical endeavors, mortality. One needs no doomsday clock to realize the morbid nature of the timepiece. While the wristwatch is certainly a staple of business-people worldwide, it started as a military tool: the "pilot's watch", now a distinct category, was the genesis of the object. It literally did act as a heads-up-display: as large-scale warfare became more "surgical" (which in itself is an interesting notion), the conducting of precise timing in bombing and shooting required the use of timepieces that could be carried everywhere and synched up easily. The military-spec wristwatch of the Vietnam war, the GG-W-113, is prized by watch collector's for its "hack" function: the mechanical movement's second hand can be frozen for to-the-second synching, and it had the accuracy to back it up. The advent of sea-going clocks also follows this trajectory, as does the advent of industrial freight-train systems: both a plotting between space and time; one between the heavens and the time, one between the train schedule, the track schedule, and the mechanical fixtures of that infrastructure. "Timing" is an interesting idea; before mechanical mechanisms that could keep a regular "beat" or "pulse" (obvious analogy of the heart applied), the idea of timing was abstract in a different way: when we get up to milk the cows, when we eat dinner. Now, due to atomic clocks and radio-controlled timing (which includes trigonometric functions to determine triangulation, radioactive decay, latency of the signal: "extreme accuracy"), the abstract notion of the second can seem like a god-given truth which is above any material thing or process. The idea of early British train systems (with a complicated "clock inspection" bureaucracy that made sure all movements were within spec) is a cool one, because it's about a the endless coordination of machines, which must "tick" together; a vast ocean of various mechanisms, which, coupled with the actions of the trains (arrival at stations, crash, failure, lateness), gives us a tenuous grasp on this idea that time could be tangible. But it's all an illusion, right? Or, if not an illusion, it's not actually just an abstraction: it's a vast network of mechanical things, which, collectively, keep the illusion going.

Donald Norman says, of timepieces:

...but let me remind you how difficult and arbitrary the analog timepiece really is. After all, it, too, was an arbitrary imposition of a notational scheme, imposed upon the world by early technologists. today, because we can no longer remember the origins, we think of the analog system as necessary, virtuous, proper... The problem is that we use two or three different hands moving around the same circle, each one meaning something different and operating at a different scale. (196, The Design of Everyday Things)

Norman echoes the same frustration I had as a 6-year-old, ignoring story-time to look up at the big, white, quartz clock, attempting to divine its inner secrets. Then, later, as a teenager, looking up at the thing, a target for my anger at my perceived incarceration. The system itself makes no sense, though, Norman -- let's at least take joy in the crazy system we set up to try and re-interpret the other crazy system. How many hours in a day? Minutes in an hour? How long is a second really? What's the difference between AM and PM? When digital, quartz watches came out, they were massively expensive and there was huge demand; today, you can buy a cheap quartz movement for under $5, and it's considerably more accurate than expensive mechanical watches. And yet, I've never seen a stockbroker without his trademark Automatic, be it Rolex or Jaeger-LeCoultre: there will always be nostalgia for the object, and ultimately the analog watch is great in itself as a machine; it's entirely different in form than a digital one. I saw an online auction recently where a first-generation digital watch was going for massive amounts of cash, though, so I guess it goes both ways.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Minecraft and Philosophy

I swear to god, if I become one of the people who write theses with names like "The Appropriation of French Techno by the Martiniquan Neo-Hipsters and its Evil Colonial Problems" (or whatever, you know what I mean), the title of this blog post would be my preferred thesis; useless in its analysis of weird popular culture, yet cute-sounding and hip.

As you may or may not know, Minecraft is an independently-made game made by a singular Swedish dude that has become outrageously popular as of late. It's pretty amazing. I love it. I can't sum it up here, but essentially it is like legos reproduced through super-mario graphics in a fantasy setting. And no, it is not like Runescape or Farmville. It is soooo serious. I am an adult, OK? Believe me.

Minecraft brings up a lot of interesting questions, for me. The developer of the game has famously not stated any sort of back story or narrative of any sort for the events in Minecraft. the game doesn't even have a manual, even though it is actually pretty complicated. A fan suggests this: your character, a voiceless, bland antagonist -- some white dude wearing a green t-shirt, is stranded on a resource-rich island. Of course, you can play in "worlds" that are not islands, and you are by no means "stranded", really, but the point is the same: you have a vast land to conquer and make your own. You are in the best "State-of-nature" I know. Start by building a house. Get food. Mine gold or chop down wood. Create any structure or machine you can imagine. Then burn it down and start over agian. Whatever. The Multi-player feature is the most interesting, as you can create amazing things with your friends collaboratively and build a community literally from the ground up, or you can fight a war against them while constructing a base for yourself. Or anything, really.

The first philosophical questions I thought up while entertaining this thesis (that I will never write, because I don't give a fuck), were perhaps the obvious ones: how do you understand the "state of nature" of minecraft? How do multiple players come into a relationship with one another in a land that has valuable resources to attain, and has no "rules"? Unlike other video games that theorists seem to love (WoW, Second Life: I'm looking at you), Minecraft has no structure built into the architecture of the game: the game isn't even finished yet, but I doubt it will ever have any sort of regulatory functions. Conversely, most Massively Multi-player online games "have to have" a complicated built-in (I.E, part of the software) disciplinary and regulatory system. We don't want no internet trolls rollin' 'round here. No sir.

In the server I created for Hampshire, much discourse revolved around the boundaries and use of the land surrounding the "spawn point"; where players enter the map. A town was built with communal fixtures: a lighthouse for lost and wayward adventurers confused by zombie attacks, a "homeless shelter" full of beds, a "recycling center" where people people's waste is reused (stone, dirt and gravel excavated in the process of obtaining diamonds can now become a new player's house). Perhaps more like Legos and less like Everquest, people were eager to enter into a simple society, to contribute to the town community, because it allowed them to create vast communal structures to show off.

However, there are liberal capitalist servers (a market develops for extractable goods and services, and a loose governmental structure is assembled to actually regulate the market), communist servers, etc. The weird Lockean tapdance that occurs in the game is surreal; if not of anthropological value, it is interesting to see players argue about the nature of their labor and their ownership of goods.

These oddly complicated and very "serious" structures rises from the meaning of labor in Minecraft. Minecraft is notoriously full of boring and seemingly endless work -- mining the earth, chopping wood, or farming is tedious and it is rare that you find an ore worth extracting, for instance. Fights break out when it is detected that one person's mine is under another's house, or that someone let out someone's farm animals. Games that start out with Lockean ideals - "grab everything you can get your filthy hands on" go sour when the players realize that they have rendered a vast virtual forest to rubble and filled an area that could be used for cool buildings into a no-man's-land of gigantic strip-mines.

It isn't just the tedium of the game that gives the virtual labor weight, though -- it's that feeling of really owning your labor in a Marxian and intellectual sense that makes clashes of economies and governments a staple of play. You have a sense of the Minecraft state-of-nature, where an absence of regulatory apparatuses means that the creative function of the game is maximized to its fullest potential. What's interesting to me is that the creative quality of Minecraft developed by itself -- not because of the developers: the quality of the game, or some sort of prompting, but by the players. The first and most important thing to do in such an open-ended world was to simply build. Players care deeply about their creations; their intellectual and technical endeavors: labor spent creating, in both the "physical" and intellectual sense, makes labor meaningful.

Perhaps in the best games, I suggest, the accumulation of goods is a side-project for an application in building a rare virtual sculpture, or a pyramid, or a tower. The best games are where the focus stays on the open-ended nature of the game (using the game as simply a blank slate for the creations of the players), and the natural tendency of the participants to want to create, who use their virtual labor in a way that is meaningful to them. If this makes me a Virtual Communist, I have no qualms at all.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Found some cool stuff in my pictures folder that I haven't seen for a while. Sorry for the bad quality, my phone is/was absolutely terrible at taking pictures. Haven't gotten on the iPhone bandwagon yet(!)...

Took this picture in Queens last year:

It's a total DIY setup for a messenger of some sort--- I'm guessing that because NY has some of the most tenacious, genius bike messengers ever, and this bike is equally genius. I'm not talking about the Williamsburg "fixers" or their kin, rather the guys on their Huffys (Huffies?) delivering Famiglia pizza across town. Some of those folks pile more weight on a Wal-Mart frame than I've ever seen on the most gnarly of touring bikes, yet handle it with the ease of a BMX. This bike is, in fact, a BMX (or at least, once was), but has now become a bizzaro workhorse: full front and back racks made of tough ~1" steel tubing. I absolutely love how overbuilt the thing is, and I think that it's an example of what I think design should be: appropriate, cheap, durable.

A Smithee's bike with that crazy-ass rear triangle. I've since seen a few bikes with this design, but I still don't know why it's used or who makes it. If you know, tell me. It looks radical.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

As some of you know, I am working on my first silver-brazed bike. This is challenging. I am scared. However, being in the mood for lug-based aesthetics, I revisited a couple of my old favorite sites for design tips. Here is a overview of the "tahkion" series of USSR-era bikes. I actually own one of these frames, but it's one of the more boring models -- no fork-mounted handlebars, no chrome. However, it does have a brazing job that simply screams "I am in a gulag, please send help!". Hopefully I can do better on my frame.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lemelson Style Critique No. 1, Feat. Clay Royse

Q: If I am wearing non-boot-cut jeans but also high-top work boots, how can I wear them both without making them clash?

A: Everyone knows that tucking the bottom of the pant leg into your work boot makes you look like a neo-Nazi. It's important to accentuate the fine utilitarian leather of the boot without looking like you are an anti-semite or an armed guerrilla. If you simply cannot find any boot-cut jeans, I suggest a slight cuff at the bottom the the jeans (for very skinny cuts), or simply letting them down all the way. However, take care not to get the hem stuck in heavy machinery.

Q: When is it impolite to sit down to a meal after having bled my hydraulic brake system?

A: If the oil has a great deal of mileage on it, and therefore appears black, it should be discouraged under most auspices. However, new or slightly used hydraulic fluid is acceptable, as it is clear. This rule is maintained with Automatic Transmission Fluid, especially for darker-skinned individuals, as it has a transparent, pink tinge. Bear in mind that high-speed bearing grease and crankcase oil are never allowed, even in the most liberal of companies.

Q: I want to purchase a machinist's apron that will not clash with outfit. Any recommendations?

A: As far as shop aprons go, you have two options: synthetic or natural fabric. Outfits comprised mostly of Carhartt might go particularly well with a light beige leather apron, whereas a nylon outer layer may be complimented by a Cordura apron of muted grays. Keep in mind the spectrum of outerwear you enjoy wearing (L.L Bean, Flannel Button-ups, or compulsory high-temperature foundry safety gear) and plan accordingly, understanding that the utility of the shop apron means that its use will not be restricted just to the machine-shop.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The 1992 Cadillac De Ville is a 5.4l v8. What a great car. I just love old luxury sedans. Whatever happened to stylin'? Whatever happened to getting 16mpg in a family car? You could take this car to war. You could fire mortars at it.

I'd really like to talk to the designer of the late-model ones, though. There's a weird retro-futuristic thing happening there. The big grilles and hood ornaments of the 80s mixed with like... a space-ship or something. Whenever I see one on the street I think a member of the Yakuza is going to step out of it.