Deterministic Footfalls

Here’s a fascinating RadioLab podcast on deep patterns in cityscapes, “Cities.”

After listening, follow it with a sip–a chaser–from Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. […] The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. (10-11)

“The Humanities Was Nice”

In late May, media theorist Lev Manovich presented “How to Read 1,000,000 Manga Pages: Visualizing Patterns in Games, Comics, Art, Cinema, Animation, TV, and Print Media” at MIT’s HyperStudio (via). The talk is relevant to my work because Manovich wants to create visualizations that deliberately alter the default scale at which we experience something like magazine covers or Manga pages. His “exploratory analysis of visual media” offers insights into culture, he says; visualizations “allow you to ask questions you never knew you had.”

Manovich wears a t-shirt that reads, “Smart Critique Stupid Create,” and he uses this slogan to gain create some separation between his work (stupid create) and traditional humanities (smart critique). Manovich kicks sand–maybe playfully, though it’s hard to say for sure–at the humanities again at the end of the Q&A when he says, “The Humanities was nice, but it was a false dream.” Obviously machine-reading and computational processing of images ring heretical for anyone deeply (e.g., career-deep) invested in one-at-a-time interpretations of aesthetic objects. The all-at-once presentation brings us to the edge of gestalt and permits us to grasp large-scale continuities. Manovich also mentions that this works differently for visual media than for semantic mining because the images are not in the same way confined by the prison house of language. The “how” promised in the lecture’s title carries well enough, but I would expect to hear ongoing questions about the “why,” especially “why Manga?” or “why Time Magazine covers”?

The video includes a couple of unusual moments: at 17:30 when Manovich grumbles about not being able to see his screen and around the 59th minute when host Ian Condry poses an exposition-heavy “question.” As for the practical side of the talk, Manovich’s frameworks for “direct visualization” and “visualization without quantification” are worth noting, and I would be surprised if we don’t hear more about them as these projects play out and are variously composed and circulated.