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by Mike Schiller

24 Dec 2008

This is the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple, located in Malaysia and dedicated to Zheng He, a Chinese admiral:

...and this is a picture of Zendesk’s “Buddha Machine Wall”, based on FM3’s little plastic box known as (predictably) the Buddha Machine:

The second is said to be inspired by the first, though it’s difficult at a glance to see how.  The Sam Poh Temple is an ornate, reportedly well-kept structure filled with Chinese artwork, Buddhist statues, and myriad flowers of types atypical to that stretch of Malaysia.  The Buddha Machine Wall is a minimalist, almost Warholian webpage consisting entirely of a series of Flash applications.

Zendesk is, apparently, a developer of help desk facilitation software.  Beansbox, which actually created the wall under the direction of Zendesk, is a web solutions company.  Is any of this making sense yet?  The cryptic blog post that Zendesk published announcing the creation of the machine doesn’t really seem to help matters, except perhaps the bit about the “Zen encompass[ing] you”.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the connection is inner peace and stability, as influenced by outside forces.  Sure, the connection is kind of tenuous—okay, really tenuous—but if there’s a connection to be made, that’s it.

That said, I was rather taken with the Buddha Machine a few years ago, and still bring it to the office on those occasions when i do need some calm, some music designed specifically for the background.  That it never changes or ends unless I ask it to is not only a peaceful feeling, but that the listening experience depends entirely on the listener lends the listener a sense of environmental control.  Not to mention, people love the thing—it’s always a source of questions and conversation when it comes to the office.

Despite the odd motivation (or lack thereof) in putting it together, the Buddha machine Wall is nearly as inspired.  While the novelty of the artifact disappears in a haze of flash applications, the sense of control is heightened; you still get the satisfaction of controlling when it begins or ends, but you also get the even greater satisfaction of “composing” what it is you’re listening to.  Rather than being limited to the nine loops of a single machine, one can instead build a beautiful, layered thing that still sounds like drone.  The minor-key chords of the first go wonderfully with the sparse melody of the fifth, the second tends to overpower things if used more than once, and I still haven’t found a use for the ninth.  Perhaps your experience with it will be totally different.  That’s the beauty.

What’s truly amazing is that after three years, the musical possibilities of a machine that contains less than three minutes of actual unique sound are still being explored in new and fascinating ways.  Unlikely as its source may be, the Buddha Machine Wall is at least worth a visit, and maybe even a bookmark.

LINK: The FM3 Zendesk Buddha Machine Wall

by Rob Horning

24 Dec 2008

Here’s another contender for the recession’s silver lining: the end of the plastic-surgery arms race. Or as the Economist’s Free Exchange blog calls it, “Breaking the Botox equilibrium.” Responding to a NYT report that expenditure on plastic surgery is dropping, the Economist blogger writes:

The increased demand for plastic surgery during the past few decades may have changed our cultural definition of beauty. Attractiveness in women has historically been associated with fertility. Yet, sometimes cultural norms confound that look—for example, the trend toward narrow, boyish hips, but large breasts. This look is often only achievable through surgical enhancement. If clusters of women undertake certain beauty rituals it can change the standard of beauty.
It could be argued that the plastic-surgery race became a coordination failure. It created an equilibrium where some women felt plastic surgery was necessary to feel attractive. If you were enmeshed in a Botox culture, it was hard to deviate. But if every woman abstained from Botox and breast implants, another welfare-enhancing equilibrium might emerge. Breaking out of the Botox equilibrium could be the upshot of the recession.

Refreshingly, this analysis posits beauty as the product of social relations—it’s not objective or transcendent, and it’s not purely subjective either; rather it’s an expression of class and social power and luxury and leisure and how these work on our genetic makeup. What is recognized as beautiful depends on social conditions, so surgical intervention brings you closer to current ideas about what is distinctive, not some eternal ideal. (The NYT article notes how celebrities are now turning on Botox, which had perhaps become too mainstream, too accessible.) Plastic surgery is a way of turning your body into a status good; in order for it to be a truly effective status good—a limited access positional good—the surgery has to become more and more extreme, or reversible, so that the removal of surgical enhancements can signal a higher, meta-enhancement. But beauty is never going to stand independent from money, power, and status. What we find objectively attractive will inevitably be appropriated and assimilated.

Because beauty is a social relation, it can be subjected to game theory analysis—hence beauty becomes a prisoner’s dilemma. Cooperation might yield a more democratic and inclusive standard of beauty, but where’s the fun in that? Better to make it a game of strategic self-objectification, so that women can continue to make themselves into pretty prizes

by Jason Gross

24 Dec 2008

AP named Hulu as the website of the year and while you could argue that there were plenty of other good contenders (Facebook, Twitter, Obama’s site), it makes sense to give ‘em the crown.  For once, media congloms came together on their own and built a product that people actually flocked to online. 

Sad to say, that lesson was lost on Warner Bros. who pulled their videos from YouTube.  Ideally, they would have though ‘the last time we went to war with a hugely popular Net service and didn’t provide an alternative (Napster), we got killed so we gotta be smarter now.” 

But, they didn’t do that.  So when users go looking for Gnarls Barkley or Beck or Jenny Lewis or Kid Sister on YouTube, they’ll just get error messages and find the stuff someone else, probably not authorized by WB since they didn’t have an alternative in place to send users.  And thus, these boneheads unwittingly empower other unauthorized online services to service up their goods.  Pretty freakin’ stupid and yet another reason that nowadays, majors are only good at killing themselves off.

by Zeth Lundy

23 Dec 2008

James Taylor: isn’t he supposed to be the antithesis of a songwriter like Elvis Costello? Isn’t that what we were once taught, those of us who grew up seeking alternatives to the hold-overs of AM radio’s “soft rock” rein—Taylor, the sanitized, mother-approved opposite of a dangerous, subversive character like Costello?

I’ve been guilty of thinking this way before, of championing something that skirts outside the mainstream’s straight-and-narrow merely to satisfy my own contrarian agendas. And yet, this isn’t a healthy way to think, nor a healthy way to absorb music (or the possibilities offered by any experience, for that matter). There is room in our lives for both the James Taylors and the Elvis Costellos of this world: this is a truth that should be self-evident, but is not, and so it is a truth that the fourth episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) makes ringingly clear.

by David Pullar

23 Dec 2008

For a family of avid readers like mine, books are an obvious choice for gift-giving times.  It’s a fairly sure bet that it will be appreciated and there’s even the joy of watching your relatives skim through the first chapter later in the afternoon, within hours of receiving their new volume.

Certainly, there are challenges and potholes, as with any gift.  A book calls for a fairly significant investment of time and the last thing you want to do is curse someone with a book that they loathe or that they simply will never read.

Successful book-giving requires a good knowledge of your recipient.  What do they normally read?  Do they have favourite authors or genres?  If so, what do they already own? Are they open to new experiences and styles? 

Once you’ve answered those questions, you might still be left with a problem: what if you can’t bring yourself to buy the books that would give people the most pleasure?  This obviously suggests that you’re an enormous snob, but it might also be mixed with a sincere desire to share great works of literature with your loved ones.  After all, the ideal present says as much about the giver as about the receiver.

A few years back, I read some sage advice for the discerning book-giver.  Take what you know that your friend, partner or relative would choose for themselves and then picture something of higher quality, or more aligned with your tastes.

For example, if your father loves nothing more than a pot-boiling airport novel, it’s not a big step to introduce him to the subtler pleasures of John Le Carré or Graham Greene.  Just about any genre has its pinnacles—and with a little thought and investigation, you can find them. 

Of course, if you’ve left your shopping to tonight, you should probably just get them a voucher.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

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