Spinning wheels

24
Feb
2011

Every so often I will be working on a project that is a bigger programming challenge than ever before. Today is such a day and although I have attacked the problem from very many angles, none of them have been fruitful. And I am loathe to charge my client for time that I feel is me learning how to do something, so I am not making much money today either. Today is one of those days when I am humbled by how little I know about some intricacies of coding. At a certain point you realize how much you are banging your head against a wall, and know that it is time to stop and take a break (to do some blogging, par exemple). The problem is, I have a LOT of work to finish in the next few days, and more guests coming to visit in March than you can shake a stick at. (Four, count ’em FOUR. My house is essentially full from the 13th to the 30th non stop). And while I am very happy to have these guests, I have to clear the decks work-wise, at least to some degree, before they get here. Today was just an exquisite exercise in frustration, alas. Some days are just like that, hopefully tomorrow I will be more clear -headed.

Somewhat happy accidents

21
Feb
2011

I have been planning for months to paint one of my walls, and not with just any old paint. I decided to paint it with magnetic paint. The paint itself isn’t magnetic, but it contains iron filings in it which one can then stick magnets to and hang all sorts of things (at least, according to the companies promoting this product). My plan was to have an active wall that would make it easy for me to swap out artwork to suit my mood. I imagined slicing up bold, beautiful photographs, patterns and the like in photoshop and then taking them to FedEx to print them out in high quality and then hold them to the wall with tiny magnets. I carefully planned how the painting would go, gathering the paint and supplies necessary, and corralling a few wonderful friends to help me get the job done quickly. Last night we taped off all the edges and put down the tarps. Before starting today I had to mix the paint pretty thoroughly, because the filings separate easily from the mixture and I must have been stirring with the drill stir about 10 minutes non-stop before the consistency seemed acceptable. We finished the first coat today, and I can tell you this about the paint: It is rather more like paste than paint, and almost impossible to make a smooth finish of. After a few strokes we kind of gave up on the idea of uniformity and acceded to the imperfections (of the paint, and let’s face it, life). Although I still have one more coat to apply tomorrow, I kind of like the texture it gives to the wall. And I know that the second coat will make the magnets stick a little better, but I am a little worried that they aren’t holding very well just yet. I even bought the really powerful rare earth kind. But I will withhold judgement until after tomorrow. I just hope I don’t have to order more paint for a third coat. It costs an arm and a leg,  takes about a week to arrive, and I can’t leave my living room in the disastrous state it is currently for more than a couple of days.

Helga, help me move the plant…

15
Feb
2011

It is a truism to say that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. And while one’s definition of right is certainly debatable, I was for a long time guilty of settling for something I knew wasn’t great, simply for the convenience of it. I am talking, of course, about my morning coffee. I had for some time been using my Mr Coffee, and it was ok, not great. And then several months ago on a trip to New York, my parents brought me a new Keurig machine that they had picked up at some fundraiser or another. The machine uses little cups that you can buy with various coffees in them, but this entire system is somewhat costly and wasteful, especially if one drinks coffee everyday as I do. So I went out and bought an attachement that allowed me to put my own coffee in a reusable filter that would then drip one cup. I really came to enjoy the convenience and ease of making my morning coffee, just a couple of scoops in the filter, click a button, and voila. But as I noticed that the resulting coffee was nothing to write home (to France) about, I started buying different coffees, trying to improve on it. After several months, I finally gave up last week and ordered a simple French press. And this morning I made my first cup of coffee with it, and I think my neighbors could probably hear my cries of hallelujah. Sure, it took a few minutes more to produce, as it involves boiling water and steeping, but the results were amazing. To even compare the swill I had been imbibing every morning to this was an insult. I will not go be going back to the dark ages.

Monster Mash

14
Feb
2011

Last night I went out dancing for the first time in a very long time, and had a surprisingly good time.  I met up with a new group of friends I have been hanging out with (friends of my friend Ric), at a club in the basement of The Monster. Everyone was in a really playful mood and we drank and danced and joked and flirted and laughed a lot. I also ran into a couple of other people I hadn’t seen in a while, one from my LA days years ago. And I have to say I really liked the music and energy of the crowd, it was pretty age mixed and friendly and without attitude. It struck me that maybe part of the reason I don’t go out dancing all that much anymore is that it often seems like a chore. And because it usually involves a very late night and I am generally a morning person, I tend to be rather dead on my feet at 3 in the morning. But this was a tea party (called SNAXX, run by one of the great guys in the group above), starting around 6 and going to midnight, which also made it more up my alley. It occurred to me that I really need to make more of an effort to go out like this, being a freelancer and at home all the time makes calcification too easy.

To own graffiti

12
Feb
2011

This seems to be my week for movie reviews, although this one could hardly be considered timely. Fabian, Craig and I watched “Exit Through the Gift Shop” last night, and I thought it was fantastic, not least of all for the way it skewered the consumption of art in modern (that is to say capitalist) society. It is meant to be a documentary (or at least presents itself that way) about a guy, Thierry,  who fell in with a bunch of people in the street art scene due to his relentless filming of everything, everywhere. Supposedly he then hooks up with Banksy, follows him for a bit documenting his art, then presents his edited work about the art scene, which turns out to be a mess. In a reversal of layers and roles, Banksy takes all the footage and decides to make the film about the guy who was making the film about him, and tells the guy to go back to LA. Apparently inspired by Banksy, the guy sells everything he owns and starts making (highly derivative but silly fun) art himself. He then wrangles himself a bunch of publicity, some public accolades by Banksy and another street artist, Shepard Fairey, and ultimately an LA Weekly article about him and his upcoming show. The buzz thus generated, the show does exceedingly well and establishes Thierry (now called, if you can believe this, “Mr. Brainwash”) as a major new force in the art world (specifically those interested in street art/graffiti). Along the way are some fascinating mini interviews from people at the show (ostensibly interested in art) commenting on the brilliance of Mr. Brainwash’s work, and one supposes cementing themselves as part of the vanguard of cool.

It was pretty obvious that almost the entire film is a brilliant prank, but some people believe Mr Brainwash to be genuine. The sequence of “documentary” footage alone makes it obvious that one would never have the ability to recreate his story after the fact. But I love the way this film messes with people. It forces all kinds of questions into the light of day. Questions about the nature of art and most particularly the nature of art in a consumption obsessed society like ours. I personally believe that true art can’t be for sale, at least not by the artist who made it with the intent to make a living off of it. People can make all manner of beautiful, clever item with varying functional purpose, but as soon as the primary goal of making it is to sell it, it loses whatever critical value (in our society) that it could possibly have. It has been co-opted by the very system it seeks to critique. But then, this is my definition of art, you may have another. And let’s face it, it is particularly grotesque that a form of art which is also a form of vandalism (street art) should be subsumed by a ravenous consumer culture, ever on the lookout for the next new thing.

And just to be clear, I am in no way disparaging or discounting all manner of beautiful or thoughtful or skillful thing that are routinely offered up for sale. The world would be a much sadder place without these things (although the definitions of these likewise vary wildly). It is just to say that in order to fully critique the society in which we live, one can not then turn around and give oneself up to, bend over for, or bask in the very thing we are criticizing, can we?

A beautiful, ugly picture of the world

10
Feb
2011

Last night a few friends and I went to see a new animated film called The Illusionist (by Sylvian Chomet, based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati). It basically tells the story of a sadsack magician trying to make his way in a world that has less and less appreciation for his talents. He moves from town to (ever more remote) town playing small gigs and barely making a living. After showing kindness to a girl in a particularly remote part of Scotland, she follows him, moves in with him, and makes a lot of financial demands on his life. The animation is this film is amazing, especially in the play of light and movement, but also with regard to the caricatured movements of human beings. And there are numerous funny sight gags delivered with great subtlety and finesse.

The plot, however, is another matter entirely. This story was supposedly dedicated to Jacques Tati’s first child, whom he abandoned. When you hear that, you think it might be some sort of touching apologia, but really the character of the young girl in the film is a horrid stereotype of modern consumer (one of Tati’s obsessions) mixed in with the using personality type of a heroin addict. She takes the sad magician for all he is worth with an ever growing set of things she demands that he buy for her. In the end he sets his rabbit free, and leaves her with a sad note about magicians not existing in the world. The note might as well have said “the gravy train is over”. The girl then finds her way into the arms of a young man she will coax into buying her things and taking care of her. It was a pretty sexist representation of women, dressed up in the mores of another era (the late 50s). Trying to decode this film as either Tati’s excuse for the shittiness of abandoning his daughter or even just taking the story at face value makes no difference. This is a misanthropic, depressing picture of the world. Reviewers seem to love it, lauding it as “touching”. I suppose it is touching, in the same way that watching someone be tortured is touching.

Stupid things in NYC: Taxi lights

6
Feb
2011

I don’t have very many bad things to say about New York, I think it is the most amazing city in the world. But nothing is perfect, and one of the things that has always bugged me here are the lights on top of taxis. As in most places, the light bar on the roof of the taxi tells you when the taxi is available. In New York, this light is made up of the cab medallion number for identification purposes.  When that medallion light is on the taxi is (usually) available. And when it is off, the taxi has a fare and is driving them to their destination, thus unavailable. But there are also two “OFF DUTY” lights, one on either side of this number. When these are lit, the cab is off duty and also unavailable. Why they would need you to know that the cab is off duty as opposed to just unavailable I am not sure. After all, an unavailable cab is an unavailable cab. Still, I could live with it if the off duty lights were the only thing that was on when a cab was off duty. But alas, no. They light up both the medallion number AND the off duty lights (which by the way are often dim), and so from a distance it is very hard to tell that a cab is off duty, one just sees the light and raises a hand, only to be cruelly disappointed as the cab gets within clearer sight range. It would make much more sense just to have one light, on or off, to indicate in a sensible, binary, way whether you could get one or whether you must continue to wait in the freezing rain. At the very least, they should keep the medallion light off when they are off duty, as it is much easier to spot two small lights than three in a row posing as one.

Simple complicated disconnect

2
Feb
2011

Today was a day when the simple (seeming) was very difficult, and the difficult (seeming) was very easy. I had two separate clients, each with their own project and a deadline. One is a graphic designer who mostly works in print. He presented me with a simple, beautiful design, comprised of some words sitting in the middle of a color field. Simple. Then he told me he wanted the text to be centered on the web page. Not as easy as one would think, but still not very difficult. And then he told me that he wanted the proportion size of that text to stay the same relative to the window size. That meant that when someone resized the browser window, the text had to grow in size and stay centered. While this is a fairly easy thing to accomplish in Flash, that would rule out all iPhones and iPads, so I needed to do it in html and javascript. Believe it or not, this is a pretty tricky thing to make work well in any browser, let alone across browsers and platforms. The effect is simple, the coding — not so much. Still, I managed to make it work (I will post a link once the site is complete  for those who are interested), but I feel bad that my client will be wondering why it took so long for something that seemed so simple.

And then a second, brand new client comes to me in a panic today. Her site, where she sells clothing, has stopped working. None of the purchases are going through to Paypal, and she doesn’t know why or how, and isn’t technical enough to tell me the particulars. Without even going into it, and not knowing her system at all, it seems like it could end up being a chase down a rabbit hole to determine what is wrong. I am leery of even taking this on because she has almost no budget and I have no way of knowing beforehand how long this could take. I login to her site admin to poke around, and almost immediately I see a simple misconfiguration that once changed, solves the problem. Total time spent with this client, including emails and fix? About 15 minutes. For something that seemed really complicated.

You never know, do you?