The Ultimate Volkswagen

Culture wanders, mutates, gets kidnapped, grows up. It spawns distant relatives we never hear from, unknown bastard children. I’ve run into fuax-Disney pillowcases in Cambodia and the Metallica Cafe in Thailand, but this — this takes it for crypto-cultural mutation of memes. From the mean streets of rural Turkey, I give you the Ultimate Volkswagen:

ultimate-volkswagen

(click for larger)

That’s right. It’s a VW bus body with a half of a classic VW bug grafted on top as a moon-roof. In funky Lemon Yellow. Holy crap.

ultimate-volkswagen-front

From the front you can see the attention to detail. The spare tire is strapped on front by a nautical helm. The paint scheme is elegantly simple except for the inscription “mashallah” which means “luck” in Turkish. A plush ornament hangs from the rear-view and all the windows are, of course, curtained and tassled. (I assure you the interior is similarly shaggy, with Turkish carpets and deep brown plaid upholstery.)

ultimate-volkswagen-wheel

On the side we find the name of this righteous vehicle: the One Way Goreme (say it  GOR-ray-me, the town where it rolls.)  Naturally, the Volkswagen company didn’t build this — Germans were never so funky.  This makes it a Turkish homebrew, but note the genuine VW hubcaps — a classy nod to the OG.

Nice, kids, nice.

The 25th Annual Chaos Communication Conference

A geek soldering at the CCC

Geeks line the hallways, young men in black t-shirts each with a laptop. And they’re always young men. There are no girls here. There are a dozen open wifi networks and I wouldn’t trust any of them. There are tangles of cables. There are anarchists. There are flying robots and broken flying robots being soldered in public.

The air is thick with something, but I don’t know what.

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Bike Hero: A Critical Review

This video, a riff on Guitar Hero, is pretty great.

Unfortunately, it’s also a fake. The video is totally awesome, to use the technical term, but a large part of its awesomeness derives from the fact that some ordinary person not only came up with this completely implausible idea, but executed it brilliantly for no discernible reason. That makes it art, if only because we  don’t have many other good names for this type of behavior. One of the millions of untrained, unlicensed plebes rose up and did something amazing, and it’s inspiring precisely because it makes us think that we just might be able to do it ourselves. It’s our art.

Except that “we” didn’t do it. The video was produced by creative agency Droga5, according to the credits on this page, which also lists the CG animators. Doubly fake. Not only was this piece created as a viral marketing ploy for Guitar Hero, but the events in the video never actually happened.

“Authentic” is very hard to define. It’s easy to give flip answers like “love, not money,” but plenty of good art has been created to pay the rent. For an internet example, take the brilliant “OK Go on Treadmills” video. Sure, they did it to sell their album, but somehow it feels very “real”. I also like to imagine the jazz and blues musicians of old New Orleans, playing in the clubs every night. They were great artists, but they were working artists. Conversely, real culture can be executed as fake, like faux-Irish pubs all over the world. While any idiot can throw up dark wood paneling and serve Guinness, it’s not hard to tell when you’re being scammed for the tourist dollar. The trouble is, I’m often very hard pressed to say precisely what it is that makes one Irish pub phony and another authentic. Is Bike Hero no longer art now that we know who paid for it?

The only certainty I can fine here is that I don’t like being lied to. Undercover marketing is designed to make us believe that it’s not marketing at all, and that makes it the eptiome of inauthenticity. For this reason I have to give Bike Hero two thumbs down.

Supercomputer Social Experiment

I have a ridiculous idea for a game that will momentarily yield one of the most powerful computers ever.

I didn’t have the idea first, exactly. There’s a piece of software called FlashMob that automatically links whatever computers are nearby into a temporary grid computer. So, you could, for example, invite everyone over for pizza and run your cryptography hack until after the movie finished.

Nifty.

Of course, the software takes its name from flash mob the social experiment. Game. Movement, whatever. So what about putting the game back in the software?

It would require one concept and after that, one email. The email would be from a reasonably socially connected person in any large and wired city to all of their friends and all the appropriate lists. The email would direct everyone to install FlashMob on their laptops, set their wireless to join a particular network, and request them to show up at a particular time and place

The concept is the hard part. This is the thing that would make people come, because it is the thing that would make it art. The central question is: what could you compute in an hour on five hundred laptops that was so cool or beautiful that it would inspire people to make it real?

Identity Card

Discriminatory rooming ad in Dubai

There are four official languages in Singapore: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. This reflects the four major peoples who came to populate the city-state: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and colonial British. Every citizen of Singapore is issued a piece of government ID (the National Registration Identity Card) which has one of these races printed on it.

Does this discourage people from having mixed-race children?

Singapore twists the Asian brain.  Just about every other Asian country is uni-cultural, at least according to the mainstream narrative. The Japanese people live in Japan and speak Japanese. The Vietnamese live in Vietnam and speak Vietanamese. The Thai people live in Thailand and speak Thai. Etc. This makes identity really easy — except if you live in Singapore, and there’s no Singaporean race, no Singaporean language, no ancient and venerable Singaporean hertitage. Blood and place and language and culture used to be inextricable, but we can no longer use any of these things to define one another. Fortunately, it says what you are right there on the card. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea.

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A Dozen Things You Notice About The Developing World

It’s very hard to understand the world in the abstract, without walking its cracked pavement or trying to have a conversation with someone impossibly different from you. Wikipedia defines a “developing country” as a nation “that has not reached Western-style standards of democratic government, free market economy, industrialization, social programs, and human rights guarantees for their citizens.” But this glossy language never prepared me for the things I saw almost immediately that first time I landed somewhere poor. This list is a primer for those who have not yet had the mind-blowing experience of stepping outside the castle walls.

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Unpacking

I remember this blender, though I didn’t remember owning it. In another box I find my emergency medicine textbooks. Among my former desk contents, a box of staples and a rainbow plastic slinky. Enameled Japanese-style soup bowls come out of newspaper. Everything comes out of boxes.

Is this my life?

I’m finally back “home.” I finally have an apartment. I can now own more than I can fit into my backpack, and suddenly I have a great many jackets and an abundance of fresh memories. I unpack more books and try not to think of these objects as my life. My stuff is not me, I keep insisting. A friend of mine says he learned this very clearly when his house burned down. How marvelously zen. I can’t throw out my first girlfriend’s leftover lingerie.

Or my iPhone, which traps me. I’m secretly ashamed of it, not because of the geek lust I feel, but because of its semiotics. To the casual observer, it pegs me as exactly what I am. Is some part of me an iPhone?

Hence the Chinese grocer.

Not only is the produce cheaper, but I don’t recognize most of it. I stand in front of bushels of something leafy and green, and discover that I can’t even read the name. I like this. Behind me there are tentacled things on ice, and sea snails. I had an excellent plate of sea snails in back alley of Saigon, and some others steamed on a beach near Danang. Those two incidents are the extent of my associations.

Not so for my distant counterpart. Is there, I wonder, some Vietnamese kid who even now is returning home and going out with his friends? He grabs a plate of food, reveling in familiar tastes, and at the same time thinks: is this really me? This home cooking, is it my life?

Because he got home that afternoon and started pulling all his old familiars out of big nylon duffels. He finds his old clothes, and a familiar pair of shoes. Knickknacks. Some books. But what books? What knickknacks?

I have no idea, and this excites me tremendously.

Everyone gets my jokes here; everyone grew up on the same cartoons and more or less the same food. Qarly found fish balls in my fridge the other day and said, ewww. What? Everyone eats them in Korea. I think. I don’t really know. They have completely different stuff there. If I was there I’d have completely different stuff too. I’d read different books and watch different movies and my nightlife would run in different neon veins.

I might be someone else. Do I really want to keep unpacking?

Jai of Siliguri

Jai is mad about his Pulsar. It’s a 180, a big bike to start with, but he’s put a decal on it that says 200, a perfect forgery of the factory sticker. He says people stop him in the street ask him about it, even take pictures. Standing in the dirt at the side of the road, waiting for the mechanic to install a new and louder muffler, he gestures at the busy main street.

“What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven on this road?”

The street is full of cars, trucks, cows, bikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, everything. I tell him, well, the traffic moves at about 40 kilometers an hour.

“I’ve gone 87,” he grins. Then a grimace. “It’s not a good idea.” But you can see how he really feels about it.
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Cyberspace is Everting

The phrase is due to William Gibson in his novel Spook Country, where artists use WiFi and GPS and VR goggles to create a new kind of art: virtual installations ghosted over the real world. Slip on the glasses and see River Pheonix’s body lying on the sidewalk on LA, or a giant squid hovering over Tokyo. Cyberspace begins to reach out to us, becomes “outside” instead of “inside.”

The thing is, you could do this now with an iPhone.

Here’s the plan: use the GPS to get an approximate fix, down to a few meters. Then look out through the camera to get a shot of the environment. Match this against data from Google Street View to recover precise camera position and orientation — the algorithms already exist. Composite in the ghosts, and display the result on the screen. The iPhone is now a window into cyberspace.

You could use it to visualize reviews tagged to store windows. Watch data packets fly between cell towers. Follow a line on the sidewalk to your destination. Remind yourself of people’s names. Or, of course, for art. Imagine a real-time version of the strangely delightful Death Star over San Francisco.

Of course, there are problems. The iPhone doesn’t have the processing power to do this in real-time, so you’d be limited to snapshots on current hardware, a ghostly camera instead of a camcorder. Google Street View is also copyrighted data, an expensive and proprietary data set (not to mention controversial) and it’s not clear how they’d react to such novel uses. But our phones are becoming ever-more powerful, and open maps are inevitable (either wiki-style, as in OpenStreetMap, or through data mining, as Photo Tourism does with Flickr.) The pieces of a personal cyberworld viewing device already exist, and they’re getting faster and cheaper.

And of course, as soon as they’re fast and cheap enough, we’ll start to get used to the idea of seeing the world through an image-processed lens. We’ll instantly find new things to do with it; the old McLuhan/Gibson/Banks notion of externalized perception and cognition will suddenly become solidly mainstream and consumer.

I’m here to tell you it’s not long now.