Cornelius has a posse


It’s the 25 anniversary of the Miner’s Strike.
I was around 11 or 12 at the time, along with the Falklands War and the ongoing existential background-radiation (!) of the Cold War it was one of the defining events of the 1980s that I ‘woke up’ in.

My elder siblings were watching Boys from The Blackstuff to make sense of the recession, the end of Britain-as-industrial-power and the human toll it was taking.

I read Skizz.

Skizz is still one of the best slices of storytelling, and certainly characterisation Alan Moore has ever done I think.

If you’re not familiar with it, then the all-too-brief wikipedia entry sums it up quite well as “E.T. meets Boys from the Blackstuff“. It can still bring me to the verge of tears, and to think this was in a comic still at the time aimed at and read by kids is remarkable and wonderful.

The sad demise of the DFC aside, I really hope that as we tumble into seemingly-similar times, someone else will write something as powerful and moving and life-affirming for a younger audience.

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Who Stole My Volcano? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dematerialisation of Supervillain Architecture.

Sir Ken Adam in conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling, V&A

I saw Sir Ken Adam, production designer of numerous Bonds, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and Dr. Strangelove amongst other movies, interviewed by Christopher Frayling at the V&A last Friday, as part of their current Cold War Modern exhibit.

As a result, Frayling concentrated the conversation on those iconic Cold War images of the war room in Dr. Strangelove, and the numerous lairs for Bond Villains he had designed.

Frayling described these lairs with a lovely turn of phrase, paraphrasing Corbusier’s “houses are machines for living in” – that they were “Machines for being a meglomaniac in”.

Adam responded that his intention was to make the Bond Villain a contemporary creature. They should embedded in the material culture of the times – albeit with the resources of a meglomaniac millionaire or billionaire – and also able to reach a little bit beyond into a near-future as those resources allow.

Although rather than maintaining a purely high-modernist aesthetic, Adam’s villains were ostentatious, status-seeking magpies, with their old masters from a daring heist, siberian tiger rugs and priceless antiques on display next to their Eames recliners and Open-plan freestanding fireplaces.

“Gantries and Baroque” might be the best name for the look though, as this finery was, of course, all inside the ‘sanctum-sanctorum’ of their lair – generally they would have maintained such a well-appointed apartment somewhere within a more massive and industrial death-dealing facility staffed by uniformed private armies.

Frayling pointed out this repeating formula in the 60s and 70s Bond movies to the audience. A hidden fortress, that had to be discovered, infiltrated and destroyed with a girl/goddess as guide – but not to be destroyed before we could take in some of the fine lifestyle touches that supervillainy gave as rewards.

But then in an almost throw-away aside to Adam, he reflected that the modern Bond villain (and he might have added, villains in pop culture in general) is placeless, ubiquitous, mobile.

His hidden fortress is in the network, represented only by a briefcase, or perhaps even just a mobile phone.

Where’s the fun in that for a production designer?

Maybe it’s in the objects. It’s not the pictures that got small, but the places our villains draw they powers from.

Perhaps the architypical transformation from gigantic static lair to mobile, compact “UbiLair” is in the film Spartan, where Val Kilmer’s anti-heroic ronin carries everything he needs in his “go-bag” – including a padded shooting mat that unfolds from it to turn any place into a place where he holds the advantage.

Move beyond film and I immediately think of my favourite supervillain of the year, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Stane from Matt Fraction‘s masterful run on the comicbook Invincible Iron Man.

As Fraction puts it:

Zeke is a post-national business man and kind of an open source ideological terrorist, he has absolutely no loyalty to any sort of law, creed, or credo. He doesn’t want to beat Tony Stark, he wants to make him obsolete. Windows wants to be on every computer desktop in the world, but Linux and Stane want to destroy the desktop. He’s the open source to Stark’s closed source oppressiveness. He has no headquarters, no base, and no bank account. He’s a true ghost in the machine; completely off the grid, flexible, and mobile. That absolutely flies in the face of Tony’s received business wisdom and in the way business is done. There are banks and lawyers and you have facilities and testing. Stane is a much more different animal. He’s a much smarter, more mobile and much quicker to respond and evolve futurist.

Zeke has no need for specialised infrastructure beyond commodity gear than he can improvise and customise. He doesn’t need HeliCarriers or giant military-industrial infrastructure like Tony Stark. He just needs his brain and his hate. As Fraction says in an interview:

I was trying to figure out what a new Iron Man would look like, and I figured, well, there wouldn’t be a suit anymore. The user would be the suit. I just started to riff on that, on cybernetics and riffing on weaponized bodymod culture stuff. Tony’s old money, old world, old school and old model manufacture. So where would Stane, a guy that had no manufacturing base and no assembly facilities, get his tech? Everything would need power sources, so how would that work? Where would the surgeries be performed? How would he pay for it? What’s his ideology? I started reading up on 4G war and warfare. And on and on until I understood Stane’s reality, and how Stane would wage war on Stark Industries and Tony both.

So – for a “4th generation warfare” supervillain there aren’t even objects for the production designer to create and imbue with personality. The effects and the consequences can be illustrated by the storytelling, but the network and the intent can’t be foreshadowed by environments and objects in the impressionist way that Adam employed to support character and storytelling.

But – what about materialising, visualising these invisible networks in order to do so?

Dan Hill just published a spectacular study of his – into the ‘architecture’ of wifi in a public space. They make visible the invisible flows of the network around tangible architecture, and the effect that has on how people inhabit that tangible space.

Interesting, deeply-interesting stuff.

Me, I just think that’s what’s fluxing and flexing around the 4th Gen Bond Villain.

That’s what could telegraph to us, the audience their bad intentions. That’s what communicates their preference, and their potency. Could it do it as effectively, immediately, seductively as Sir Ken could with Cor-Ten and Cashmere?

Probably not. Yet.

The visualisations he’s made Dan freely admits make more than a nod to Cedric Price‘s Aviary at London Zoo. Price himself being no stranger to creating intangible, mobile, flexible architectures – I bet he would have been bursting with ideas for 4th Gen Bond Villain UbiLairs…

In the mean-time, in the real world of all-controlling superpowers, we seem to be coming full circle, architecture professor Jeffrey Huang has been investigating the all-too-tangible architecture of what we rather-wishfully call the cloud: server farms.

These hydropowered, energy-guzzelling megastructures seem to have all the ‘Gantry’ but not a lot of ‘Baroque’ panache to qualify as good old-fashioned Bond Villain SuperLairs.

But, perhaps Larry and Sergei are working on it…

This summer, Google put a patent on floating data centers cooled and powered by the ocean.

Sir Ken was always ahead of his time.

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A good comic shop is hard to find…

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Orbital Top 10, originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Very pleased to be introduced to Orbital by Jack Schulze on Saturday.

It’s in a dingy basement underneath a five-quid-a-time walk-in barbers at the Centrepoint end of Charing Cross Road. The staff are sarcastic and bristly for show, but helpful and enthusiastic once engaged. The “Top 10” seems to change regularly, and there are ratty, comfy 4th-hand leatherette sofas to slouch on.

It’s great, and everything I look for in a comic book store. However I am a geeky male in his thirties. It’s not going to do anything to broaden the reach of the medium, lets say…

In contrast, the other best comics store I’ve been to in recent memory was in Yale Town, Vancouver.

That was clean, well laid out, didn’t smell like several Fields-of-the Nephilim fans had died there; and the assistants were helpful and engaging – resulting in selling me an armful of comics more than I planned to buy. I’d imagine the Vancouver store has a bit of a wider demographic appeal as a result, but Orbital’s ‘authentic charm’ has me under it’s slightly fusty spell.

Anyway, it gave me a sufficient jolt of nostalgia to get me back into a habit I haven’t had since I was 18 – a standing order for comics.

The last place I had one was in the late 1980’s in a dingy corner of Jacob’s Market, Cardiff – where the staff (Pete, Dave and Geoff I think?) were bristly, sarcastic and enthusiastic – and cheerfully took from me a large slice of the 15 quid a week I earned from after-school work at Harris Printers.

However, I had a bit of a blank when it came to actually placing the order, so I’m hoping you can help me out.

I’ve already taken a look at what people on are reading, and there’s a few things there I’ll probably add, but here’s the rather meagre list I left at Orbital

  • Seven Soldiers *.*
  • Fell
  • Desolation Jones
  • Planetary (!)
  • Jack Cross
  • The Losers

So, what would you recommend?

Tony Stark on Etech

In the final pages of Iron Man #1, the reboot/takeover by Warren Ellis comes a scene between alcoholic billionaire technologist arms-dealer Tony Stark and Maya Hansen (who looks to be a central character in the 6 part series)

They are at a bar in the conference hotel, and Starck is bemoaning the lack of “Genuine outbreaks of the future” that he’s seen there.

They are at a conference called "WestTech", which seems pretty obviously to be O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference…

The line up for 2005’s Etech has been posted, and so far it seems like the same people talking about the same pet subjects. Not many ‘genuine outbreaks of the future’ so far.

Now, I know that I maybe jaundiced by the fact that I have been to every Etech so far – that’s 3 years on the trot (no blog-software pun intended, much), so perhaps take this with a pinch of salt.

There are lots of interesting things on the schedule, including what sounds like a great workshop by Tim Igoe and Raffi K, and m’colleague Chris on tangible computing. There are a fair few brits there again, including The Beatles of post-broadcast technology, Coates,Webb, Biddulph and Hammond (I’ll let you decide which is Ringo… but does it make Hill = George Martin?)

It’s just that the topics on offer: y’know – the copyfight, social software, bloody blogs, web services etc. might still be worthy topics for discussion, but I feel like I’ve been around those blocks quite a few times now, and I want some genuine outbreaks of the future.

Erupting technologies, not emerging ones…  Surely these topics have crossed the chasm to be at the front-of-mind of the business world, if not the consciousness of what might be called "the mainstream".

I thought with the advent of the Web2.0 that some of the stuff that Etech had covered so well in the past would be retired, moved over for the $2000 suits to chew over – clearing the decks for some really out-there stuff. The current schedule suggests this is not the case.

What would I have there instead? On the hardware side: more mobile! Might be heresy coming from me, but how about someone from Qualcomm? Or even better, Ningbo Bird! Fuel cell technology, flexible displays,  printed electronics, multiradio – Flarion, Wimax, Ultrawideband, and their implications for cities, suburbs and rural communities.

More robots, toy manufacturers, Rodney BrooksNatalie Jeremienko and/or Neil Gershenfeld as keynote…  On software and services: more simulcra and simulation… Ben Fry on working with bioinformatics and the genome, get Alan Kay again… or David Gelertner … 

What’s going on with agents and distributed computing, autonomic computing – is it on the way after the hype-cycle of the mid 90s? Artficial life and AI – what’s the state of the theoretical art and the practical applications happening right now?

NBIC – the confluence of Neuroscience, Bioengineering, Information Technology and Cognitive Sciences. Bioinformatics, biometrics, and exploring the ethics of engineering in these fields. Get some sociologists in – what are these sciences and the new fields of convergence they bring doing to their domain of study and it’s application to our collective future?

Which leads me to society and technology, the unacknowledged but most interesting part (for me) of etech usually –  some contrarians and tech-inspired creatives to prick the conscience: John Thackara and/or Michael Crichton and/or Warren Ellis.  Lessig and Shirky, much as I love them, aren’t the only ones who can deliver a tubthumper. Patch-ecologists, biologists, cognitive psychologists! Anyone but the same old silicon valley apologists!

I know there are a fair few months for big hitters and game-changers to find their way into the programme, so perhaps this is unfair – but the theme of the next conference is ‘remix’ and at the moment it seems to be much more of a ‘retread’.  Ok, rant over.

If I do go along I guess I’ll be getting pissed in the corner with Tony Stark.

Life imitates Grant Morrison

Via Foe’s, Wired News report on findings by Imperial College:

” Most of the cells in your body are not your own, nor are they even human. They are bacterial. From the invisible strands of fungi waiting to sprout between our toes, to the kilogram of bacterial matter in our guts, we are best viewed as walking “superorganisms,” highly complex conglomerations of human, fungal, bacterial and viral cells.”

I find this kind of awe-inspiring and lovely. We’re all just the filth.

Compression / Decompression

Kieron Gillen writing beautifully about Morrison & Quitely’s “We3”:

“Reading naturally, the page after page of tiny, beautifully rendered frames start to flow past all the quicker as the reader, unhindered by extraneous exposition cuts from second to second in direct parallel at the increased pace of the escape, as security system and tiny lives fall apart. There’s too much to process, so the eyes streams from one to the next in search of meaning. But the faster it goes, the less chance there is of getting a purely logical one. However, as the images pile up, and a sense emerges. Not a strict linear sense – though it is graspable with study – but an understanding of the hurried confusion of the moments, piling up on top of each other until the become unbearable. We’re pushed into the security office, desperate eyes moving between a dozen monitors trying to deal with something that’s happening too fast to possibly contextualise.

Frame after frame hammers against us, and we sprint in turn, trying to reach a point where everything coalesces into something truly coherent.

And then the grids end, and we hit a single double page spread of the animals mid-leap, out the base, out of everything, free of the imposing structure that kept them hemmed tightly in.

And they’re flying.

And so are we.”

I can’t seem to find a comic shop that sells current english-language comicbooks in Helsinki (do tell me if I’m wrong), so We3 will have to wait till my next trip back to London.

Dark knights in London

Dan moblogs the new Batman movie being filmed with Bloomsbury as a backdrop.

“I didn’t see any of the glittering cast (dir. Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer etc.) though I did see plenty of replica US police cars with Gotham Police Department insignia on the side. Rather incongruous in genteel Bloomsbury, I can tell you.”

Well, if a Welshman can be Bruce Wayne, why can’t Gotham City be Bloomsbury? Come to think of it, there are some great contenders for Arkham Asylum in Wales… this in my hometown, for instance.

A pound of art

Warren Ellis on his Bad Signal mailing list [my emphasis]:

“As of right now, there are 5400 people on the Bad Signal.
If all of you went to and paid a lousy 25 cents to read a Patrick Farley comic, he would instantly become the best-paid serial creator in indie comics. If half of you went, he’s still be doing pretty well, probably constituting a pro rate for the work he’s doing. For twenty-five cents, microcasting work to an online audience of less than 3000 people would give him a shot at a living gig. Expand that out. Even 25 cents for an mp3 multiplied by half the readership of Bad Signal would mean that that musician is doing better than 90% of professional musicians — that is, earning more than US$600 a month. Seriously.

In fact, to support four artists you like, all you’d have to do is put aside an entire dollar a month to buy their art. And tell your friends.”

I guess this is the telling my friends part. Warren makes a good side-point about the use of or other social-network services as markets for what he calls “microcasting” of creative work. There’s probably something to be learnt / crosspollinated from the creative networks around MMORPGs, but I’m not sure what. Anyway – go give Patrick Farley some money…