furia furialog · Every Noise at Once · New Particles · The War Against Silence · Aedliga (songs) · photography · other things
5 March 2006 to 12 February 2006
A conversation, from the point of view of any one participant, has these three elements:  

- the source: the other participants, either as individuals or as some collective they form for the purpose of this conversation  

- the context: as simple as an explicit topic, as subtle as an implicit one, as complex as a network of human relationships  

- your role: sometimes you are yourself, sometimes you are acting in a defined capacity, sometimes you participate in a conversation as part of a collective (like an audience)  

All conversations have these same fundamental elements. At the moment, our electronic conversations are subdivided and segregated according to ultimately trivial subclasses (personal email, IM, mailing lists, newsletters, feeds, web sites themselves, innumerable other variations on alerts), and the useful tools for managing conversations are scattered across similarly (arbitrarily) segmented applications.  

The conversation tool I really want will be built on the structural commonality of conversations, instead of the disparities. I want to apply email rules to RSS feeds, feed mechanics to mailing lists, contact lists as view filters, identities as task organizers, Growl formats as cell-phone notification styles. I want my email correspondence with my mom to be at least as rich as my soccer "correspondence" with the MLSnet front page, and I want my conversation with MLSnet to be as malleable as my own iTunes song status.  

I want, I think, for all my conversations to be structurally equal. I want to be able to look at them organized by any of those elements: by source, by context or by my role, and by the unions and intersections thereof. I want to see conversations in context when there's context, and I want there to more often be far more context than a list. I want to be able to understand my side of my conversations in aggregate, and for the memberships of my conversations to be effortlessly expandable, and for my computers to remember things my head forgets, even when I can't remember whether I knew them to begin with.  

I want, of course, the whole internet redesigned with this desire at its core, but I also want approximations of this in the meantime. I want Apple Mail or GMail to stop acting like somebody invented "mailing lists" and "address books" yesterday morning. Or I want Shrook or BlogBridge to speak POP3 and IMAP as fluently as RSS and OPML. Or I want Safari to look like Apple solving a problem from their own principles rather than letting somebody else define the form of the answer, or Flock aspiring to be a social application rather than just a browser with a few extra menu commands. I want Agenda and Magellan back now that I finally have enough information to justify them.  

I want us to have the conversations we could have if we didn't spend so much time just trying to keep track of what morbidly little we've already managed to say.
The main human information goal is understanding. Or wisdom, depending on your precise taxonomy. But either way, searching is plainly a means, not an end, and the current common incarnation of Search, which involves arbitrarily flattening a content space into a set of independent and logically equivalent Pages and then filtering them based on the presence or absence of words in their text, not only isn't an end, but is barely even a means to a means. This form of two-dimensional, context-stripping, schema-oblivous, answer-better-already-exist-somewhere searching is properly the very last resort, and it's a grotesque testament to the poverty of our information spaces that at the moment our last resort is often our only resort.  

The first big improvement in searching is giving it schema awareness. I doubt the people behind IMDb spend much time thinking about themselves as technology visionaries, but IMDb Search is a wildly instructive model of what is not only possible but arguably almost inevitable if you know something about the structure of your data. IMDb presents both the search widgetry and the answers in the vocabulary of the data-schema of movies and the people who work on them, not in "keywords" and "pages", and understands intimately that in IMDb's information-space search exists almost exclusively for the purpose of finding an entry point at which to start browsing. You go to Google to "look for something", you go to IMDb to "look something up"; the former phrase implies difficulty and disappointment in its very phrasing, the latter the comfortable assumption of success.  

On the web at large, of course, there is no meaningful schema, and it's impossible to make any simplifying assumptions about the subject matter of your question before you ask it. It is more productive to search in IMDb than with Google not because IMDb's searching is better, but because its data is better. But this does not even fractionally exonerate Google, or anybody else who is currently trying to solve an information problem by defining it as a search problem. They're all data problems. Google has the hardest version of this problem, since they don't directly control the information-space they're searching, but they have more than enough power and credibility to lead a revolution if they can muster the vision and organization. And anybody building an "enterprise" search tool has no such excuse; the enterprise does control their information-space, at least out to the edges where it touches the public space, and every second that can be invested in improving the data will be at least as productive as an hour sunk into flatly searching it.  

So if I worked for a Searching company right now, I'd start madly redefining ourselves tomorrow. We are not a searching company, we are an information organization company. The last resort is necessary, but neither sufficient nor transformative. I'd pull the smartest people I had off of "search" and put them to work on tools for the other end of the information process, reaching to the humans who are creating it and giving them the power to communicate not just the words of what they know but the structure of it, and to the collective mass of people to help them communicate and recognize and refine their collective knowledge about the schemas of known and knowable things. This is why Google Base holds the future of Google, and why you should sell your Google stock right now if they keep treating it as mainly a way for someone to buy your unused exercise equipment from you using a credit card. It should be the world's de facto public forum for the negotiation of the schema of all human knowledge, and if it isn't, every other decision Google makes will be forced by whatever is.  

But well-structured data, though necessary, isn't sufficient either. The good news for "search" companies is that improving the data is itself just a means to an end. Ideal data only encodes what we already know. The problems of useful inference from known data are hugely harder and super-hugely more valuable than the current forms of searching, especially when you realize that the boundary between private and public data is an obstacle and an opportunity in both directions not a wall to hide behind or run away from. The real future of "search" is in providing humans with the tools to form questions that haven't already been answered, and assemble the possible pieces of the answer, from threads of reasoning that traverse all kinds of territories of partial knowledge, into some form that synthesizes ideas that have never before even been juxtaposed, and onto which humans can further apply human powers where machine powers really fail -- fail because the machines are machines, not where they fail because we didn't take the time to let them be more thoroughly themselves -- so that they in turn can help us be more completely and wisely human.
I think it is becoming painfully clear that the web suffers from at least two critical design flaws, one of structure and one of usability.  

The usability flaw is the omission of real tracking and monitoring from the original browsing model. The "visited" link-state is no substitute for true unread marks, and HTTP response headers are not adequate building blocks for functional monitoring.  

RSS, born out of various motivations, is turning most coherently into a retrofit tracking/monitoring overlay for the web. My conversation with a feed is qualitatively poorer in context (and potentially in content) than my conversation with a web site, but it's qualitatively more manageable. The feed tells me when there's something new, and what it is, and lets me keep track of my interaction with it.  

This dynamic should have been built into the model from the outset, because without it the whole system does not scale in use. Providing it as an overlay, and a whole parallel information channel, is idiotic in every theoretical sense, but its pragmatic virtue is that a separate system can be built with far fewer technical and social dependencies.  

And while RSS is still nowhere near social critical mass among human information consumers, it is approaching a viable critical mass as a geek technology, and we will thus be increasingly tempted to lapse into thinking of it as a goal in itself, rather than a means. Witness, most glaringly, the fact that so far nobody, not even the people writing RSS-aware web-browsers, has attempted to use RSS to solve the original problem, which is making sense of the contents of a web site, not from it. And witness, almost as gallingly, the fact that we're pretending to think there's a future to the network model in which every reader is individually polling every information source every few minutes.  

In content, the same time-wasting cycle is going to replay in RSS that played in HTML: the new channel is initially lauded by sheltered tech geeks for freeing the "real" content from all the crap that used to surround it, and then quickly retaken by the forces of reality, which understand the commercial point of "all the crap". So ads and context will creep into feeds, and before long the content of RSS items will start to reproduce the whole experience of the originating web site, and there will no longer be anything streamlined or usably universal about the content of a feed.  

In scalability, the whole thing is just going to implode, or become horrendously convoluted as people scramble to patch over the network problems with proxies and collective batching.  

Of course, if we're going to have to rebuild the whole web for structural reasons, rebuilding the tracking/notification overlay on the current web is a throwaway project, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing, and it certainly doesn't mean somebody won't try to do it.  

If I were working for Microsoft or Apple right now (or, in theory, on Mozilla, but I'm not sure this can be done without corporate-scale backing), I'd have my R&D people putting serious work into treating RSS not as a content channel but as a source of the necessary metadata to build monitoring and tracking directly into the browsing experience. Forget trying to "teach web users about feeds", they shouldn't have to learn or care. Build the monitoring/tracking stuff around and into the browser where the user already lives and reads.  

If I were working for an infrastructure company, like Google or Akamai or maybe IBM, I'd have my R&D people hard at work on standards proposals and proof-of-concept prototypes for a cogently bidirectional subscription/syndication protocol that sends messages from the consumer to the source only when the consumer's interest changes, and from the source to the consumer only when the information changes. Quantum-leap bonus points for subsuming old-style email/IM messaging and web-browsing itself into the same new protocol. These are all most essentially conversations.  

And in the meantime, if I were working on any kind of RSS/OPML-related application, I would take a day or two to stop and think about my goals, not in terms of today's syntaxes but in terms of the flow of information between human beings, and between machines as our facilitators. I'd want, and maybe this is just me, to be working on something that not only improves the lives of people using the imperfect tools it has to work with right now, but would improve the lives of people even more efficiently if the world in which it operates were itself improved. Sometimes a broken window demands plywood, but as a tool-maker I dream of making something you won't just throw away after this crisis passes.  

(Of course, the deeper and ultimately more costly of the web's two design flaws is the structural mistake, which is the original decision to base HTML on presentation structure, rather than content structure. This is a monumental tragedy, as it has resulted in humanity staging the largest information-organization effort in the history of the species, and ending up with something that is perversely and pathetically oblivious to how much more than screen-rendering engines and address resolvers our machines could have been for us. In building this first unsemantic web we may well have thrown away more human knowledge than we've captured, and now we're going to have to build the whole thing over again, more or less from scratch, against the literally planetary inertia of our short-sighted mistakes.)
[An idea arising (or maybe coalescing) from a conversation with Pito Salas of BlogBridge about "feed remixing".]  

Del.icio.us/popular and Digg, at the moment, produce feeds and are probably heavily fed by people who read feeds, but still rely on a workflow that requires browsing: I read something interesting in one of my feeds, I go to the web page it represents, I bookmark/Digg that web page, a bunch of people do the same, and when it crosses some threshold of popularity it hits del.icio.us/popular or the Digg front page, or whatever. Those pages in turn then generate feeds, which I read. This flow makes excellent sense if I want to bookmark the thing persistently, or I want to annotate my bookmarking of it, or participate in a discussion about it. But sometimes all I ever want to do is read it and pass it on.  

Maybe there should be a way to simply bypass the browsing stages. When you read something interesting in a feed, you could Figg the feed article itself. Your stream of Figged articles from all your feeds forms a new personal compilation feed, and those personal feeds are then aggregated and collated, and the most popularly Figged articles appear in a collaboratively generated new feed. This is just a flow, so it would be my recommendation to leave persistence and annotation and tagging and commentary all to the other model. Keep it to a single function requiring no other per-action parameters, whose output is just a normalized feed with articles uniquely IDed by source. The aggregation could either be centralized (i.e., as a service that also provides hosting for the personal feeds), or decentralized (you host your own personal feed, and just register it with the aggregation service).  

Note that I'm not claiming this is a business idea, nor do I even think it's a durable idea in structural terms. It won't surprise me much if feeds, in their current form, go straight from early-adopter obscurity to being obviated or subsumed or reintegrated back into a new form of browsing. But for now these possibilities are part of this idea's appeal -- for a little while the technology of feeds still happens to define a community and an audience, and Figg could be the ultimate insiders' channel.  

[If the main point of this is single-click-ness, it would require blog-reader integration, but several RSS readers already have Blog-This functions, and this would be simpler.]  

["Feedmarking" would have been a great name for this idea, but that term is already being used to talk about the marking/tagging of feeds. Of course "bookmarking" was originally the marking of pages within books rather than the marking of books, but on the web this distinction doesn't exactly hold.]
Despite spending my weekdays designing web software since pretty much the dawn of the web, I've only ever constructed a whole web site for myself, and I've only done that using my own deliberately self-centered and exploratorily minimal tools. At the moment this site is running on a Perl+XML system that would qualify as "content management" only with the liberal application of asterisks. In its exact current state it is a random combination of me-specific hacks I didn't feel like generalizing, over-generalized partial architectures of things that my own site's small scale doesn't really require, and I guess at least a few sensible compromises between the two. The system is not a product, and I don't really aspire to turn it into one, but I'm a product designer by trade, and so tend to gravitate towards product-designer-ish solutions.  

I've also never been a web freelancer, and I've always been pretty sure that freelancing wouldn't suit my personality particularly well. I prefer generalizable problems to the inherently individual, I like the challenge of adapting moral imperatives to evolving contexts and constraints more than constantly starting over at the beginning, and I really like having some control over the kind of work I'm doing.  

But that doesn't mean I'm not curious, and in my at-least-temporary unemployment I have the chance to experiment, and a friend of mine who does freelance design has a project for which he needs a developer. And, intriguingly, the structure of the site he needs to build is more or less the same as this one: a few sections of static content and a couple streams of dynamic stuff.  

Actually, perhaps even more importantly, the client's site is smaller than mine. Fewer pages, fewer bytes, fewer moving parts, probably even fewer visitors. More revenue, I hope, but none of it directly transacted by the site. So while my system is of vastly unproven scalability, I'm pretty confident in its ability to scale smaller than its one existing deployment.  

But "scalability" is actually a vector of variable orientation. I've written an outline of the implementation plan and a full schedule of task-time estimates before we finally stop and think about what we're doing. My system is streamlined in ways that are arguably clever, but in service of my goals and habits and assumptions. I am willing to write my own code to produce exact quirks of behaviour, and conversely would rather have simple behavior under my complete control than complexity that depends on other systems and constraints. I don't have to anticipate where I can adapt. I don't mind editing XML files by hand. I embrace informed incompatibility. I want a work in constant progress. I am a designer of large systems produced by large teams in my work life, and this is my other-extreme small system for the smallest team.  

My friend's client, on the other hand, is a chicken breeder. I don't mean this metaphorically, I mean they're a company that breeds chickens. Their web site, when it's done, will have background information, breeding statistics, news and announcements about their breeding of their chickens. I am quite prepared to believe, after looking through the source material for the site, that they are every bit as diligent about chickens as I am about information. And, vice versa, I would care about chicken breeding as long as it took me to build their site, and they would care about web design as long as their site never really required them to.  

So while I could build their web site, they could probably cook me a chicken dinner. I deal in information structure first, and the structure of chicken-breeding information is not complicated. They deal in predictability and consistency, and if you can breed chickens you can probably follow a recipe.  

But there are people who cook for a living, and people who make web sites like this for a living, and there are excellent reasons to let them. Fiddling with my site when I feel like it is a pleasure. Fiddling with theirs in a sudden crisis would be annoying for me and for them. My system is designed in anticipation of a future in which my software environment may change in a hundred ways, but I will always be me. Theirs should be built in almost exactly the opposite way, assuming that techs and admins and data-enterers and freelancers will change but the software will stay the same. A commercial content-management system is intolerable overhead and point-missing premature closure to me, basic foundation and the first step towards maintainability for them.  

So I'm not doing the site. We had fun imagining how we might have, probably me more than my friend, since I'm not billing for my time, and at the end of this he still has to find someone to build him a chicken breeder's site the right way. I got some ideas of new things to play with here on my own site, he got a couple ideas about streamlining their navigation and using tagging to filter news by audience. And I don't know whether this means I'll never be a freelancer, but I have a clearer idea of what oddities a project would have to entail to lend itself to my odd tools.  

And I am reminded, most usefully, that the most critical constraints on your solutions are not your capabilities, but the capabilities of the people whose problems you are trying to solve. As a tool collector and maker of tools for making tools, you are allowed to fill your own workshop with lopsided automata and non-Euclidean corners and puzzle-joins and secret panels; but when you're building for people who only ever want to have to own a hammer, you better stick to nails.
I think I can reasonably claim to be a student of Japanese: more disciplined and inquisitive than merely a fan or a tourist, but far less than an authority. I'm not a very advanced student, mind you. I've spent a couple years taking low-level language classes, I've watched a lot of Japanese movies (including some not intended for export, but so far none that didn't somehow get English subtitles), I've listened to a lot of Japanese pop music, I've eaten a lot of Japanese food. I've read a lot about Japan. I've been to Tokyo once, for six days, and Kyoto once, for a couple. I am trying to learn, but it's only barely a beginning.  

Of all this, the closest I think I've come to witnessing something intrinsically and untranslatably Japanese was reading Kenji Ekuan's The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, which I only have or know about because of some bindery error that resulted in a pile of loose-covered copies making their way to the impulse-buy discount shelves at the MIT Press bookstore. Ekuan is a prominent industrial designer in Japan, and wrote this, his eighth book, in 1980, for a Japanese audience. It was translated into English in 1998 by Don Kenny for MIT, and I will assume, for simplicity, that the translation is at least vaguely accurate in meaning and tone.  

The book purports to be an examination of the design and cultural principles embodied and implied in the simple Japanese divided lunch container, and it does contain recognizable elements of such a study, but in Western terms the elaboration around them reads less like a "study" and more like a daydreaming note-taker's drafts of the most idiotically exaggerated claims that could conceivably be imagined on each related topic. This is how it begins:  

The greatest pleasure of the lunchbox comes when you take off the lid and sit for a moment gazing at the various delights inside. No matter how many times I open a lunchbox, I find myself gulping in surprise at its gorgeous contents. It inevitably contains delicacies from the sea, from the mountains, and from the plains in a variety of colors and fragrances. But you never have the feeling of unsightly clutter or congestion.

The book is constructed almost entirely (and that "almost" is probably about my own reticence, not the book's (as is that "probably")) of absolutes, even where they conflict. "Never", "always", "inevitably", "invariably", "integral", "instinctively", "everyone", "must", "cannot", "most". For the first couple introductory pages it's possible to imagine that he is talking about what a lunchbox can aspire to, not what any lunchbox becomes by its lunchboxness, but then shortly into chapter one we get this:  

During the postwar period of high economic growth in Japan, owners of small and medium-sized enterprises traveled to the West one after another. They were unable to speak the languages of the countries they visited and they paid no attention to the explanations of interpreters. They simply stared at the machines they were hoping to introduce into their businesses. This was quite enough for them to be able to perceive the inner workings. Were they to have attempted to understand the logic behind these machines, it would have wanted a great bustle of taking the machinery apart and reassembling it again. Since they were able to get a complete grasp by simply staring, they could instead make their decisions very quickly.

Coming from a noted industrial designer, in a book about design and its relation to technology, this seems to be intended as a serious observation, but if I take it seriously, I find it hard not to also assume that the author is fundamentally self-unaware, both about himself and his culture. And thus, for the rest of the book, I feel like I am reading a demonstration ingeniously embedded in the form of an explication.  

Some other choice moments:  

The Japanese are by nature acquisitive people. We cultivate more types of agricultural products and have a larger variety of foods than any other nation. In the field of sports as well, we have introduced games from all over the world, which, added to traditional indigenous pastimes and the martial arts, combine to give Japan the greatest variety of sports anywhere. The same thing can be said of music.  


The lunchbox goes beyond tawdry excuses. Since it is truly greedy, it has come out impeccably arranged.  


The instant you remove the lid of the lunchbox, such a profusion of messages is conveyed that you are quite dazzled. Messages from nature; messages from the environment; a seamless brocade of values embroidered by the people; an abstract methodology; the care, skill, and style, or philosophy, of the cook; and the breath of diverse symbols and their combinations. It is truly a spectacular playing out of volition and codes. Cooking is an art of process, yielding masterpieces unsuitable for display in museums -- yet with a dignified presence that everyone knows how to enjoy. People willingly consume the masterworks constructed out of a sense of beauty, with all their overtones of popular appeal. What a luxuriant art!  


The lunchbox structure is one, while its contents are myriad. It is a great wonder that its contents, despite their broad variety, are inevitably divided into that triple classification: pine, bamboo, and plum -- the so-called lucky triad of Japanese art. No detailed explanation of this breakdown of the contents, or of their quality, is provided; everything is simply lumped together under the three headings of pine, bamboo, or plum, with no apparent rational concern for the differences. It would be boorish to question this topos.  


All contents of the lunchbox are of equal value -- none is of unusually great cost or status. It is a height competition among acorns, so to speak. There are no great geniuses here. Even though differences of origin are recognized, organization is founded on the basic premise that every item involved is equal in standing. There are, of course, distinctions of faction and pedigree, but these scarcely constitute a discriminatory structure. Every element is used to the full, either for its adaptability or in terms of individual merit, rather than for any specific functional virtue. It is through this sort of unspoken understanding that, in Japan, even incompetents gain positions for themselves and manage reasonably well within the organization.  


Since nature is rich in variety, we Japanese have an innate penchant for variation.  


It is well known that today some ninety percent of Japanese consider themselves middle-class. This may appear contradictory at first glance, but has made possible provision of anything and everything in portions that all can easily consume and digest. Most notably, fully ninety percent of the nation can now afford to buy car, refrigerator, washing machine, and television set on the installment plan.  


The Yamaha compact stereo system Tiffany AST-7 effectively enhances a small space and creates a new dimension of entertainment.  


We Japanese can only bear to look at scenery to which someone has consciously added significance. ... Fish welcome people who know fish. Rice welcomes people who know rice. The lunchbox has a mission of culinary artifice to render fish more fishlike and rice more ricelike. It is due to such artificialization that one is able to savor nature more deeply.  


We must keep in mind that the Japanese people have a boundless admiration for ingenious improvisation, and paradoxically are prepared to expend infinite pains.  


Things not pertaining to everyday use must be stored in boxes or sacks. This represents a way of thinking common to the entire human race. Unless jewels are replaced in casks, swords in scabbards, and needles in sewing baskets, people find it impossible to sleep at night.  


Placing objects in boxes and closing the lid serves to quiet their spirits.  


People go to department stores to observe and experience the entire panorama of contemporary life. Total satisfaction may be had by spending half a day gazing at the innumerable products displayed on all floors from roof to basement. Even if you go to purchase only one or two specific items, you nonetheless return home with an enhanced and refreshed image of life. ... The department store deals in styles of life, and people willingly modify theirs according to what they find there. Thus the notion that if only one continually consumes the lunchbox that is the department store, one can keep a vigorous nutritional balance and lead a life of health and beauty.  


We now have a calculator that fits into the palm of the hand. It is as light and thin as a business card -- only 1.6 millimeters thick, and weighing 34 grams. People inadvertently reach to buy one as they might pluck a wild flower, in an uncomplicated urge for high-quality precision. They want the calculator because it is thin and light; it elicits the same reaction as a jewel seen and immediately coveted. In the case of jewels, ulterior motives such as hoarding or speculation may be involved. The desire for a calculator is far purer. There is no other instance of such passionate pursuit of thinness, lightness, and compactness. Is this not something that should be inscribed as a datum of cultural history rather than the history of technology?  


Calculators can be categorized: those that embody an aesthetic of thinness; small desk-top types; those for business use which do not stress thinness; specialist-oriented calculators; industrial models (desk-top types the size of a small typewriter); those set in wrist watches which are almost jewel-like; those installed in cigarette lighters; and others embedded in writing instruments.  


Precision, thinness, and lightness are sufficient to make any product attractive.  


A nearly weightless precision device expands the range of human sociability into a new realm. The AVOT is a 1986 design proposal for a new personal audio lifestyle.  


Not so long ago, the world simultaneously witnessed a new etiquette of eating and drinking. On that occasion the impression of the earth as "blue" was first received, as we gazed in amazement at a meal consumed in a spaceship.  


In this maintenance of order and efficiency through anonymity, equality, and a consciousness of belonging, geniuses are rarely born. Eccentrics are permitted to add a dash of spice to the atmosphere, but it is impossible for such persons to assert themselves to any greater extent. Nor do self-centered individuals receive encouragement. For a lunchbox, as I have repeatedly emphasized, it is essential that each piece of food be tasty but that none outshines another in flavor. In the case of an organization, as well, all personnel must be of the same overall capability.  


In the past, the myriad Shinto deities put in their appearance to serve as an approximate point of reference. The master-and-pupil system in Japanese traditional arts is a pattern based on this hierarchical assemblage of deities. The hierarchy of cultural diffusion begins with the grand master at the top, and appointed teachers at subsequent levels convey the style of an art to ordinary mortals. The deities, or grand masters, even appear on the television screen. Gods of song, of entertainment, of cooking, of clothing -- all deign to demonstrate and convey to the shifting masses the ambitions and aims of contemporary beauty and taste. Deities alao appear in weekly magazines and as product advertisers.  


The different peoples of the earth all have their unique ways of looking at things, so today's world is still a place where numerous senses of value coexist. And it is through the exercise of our various overlapping psychologies that we are able to cooperate with those quite unlike ourselves, eliciting unification-of-diversity responses from one another. Nurturing a spirit of acceptance is one of the great challenges faced by education in our world today.  


Anything there is to see, eat, or wear abroad can be bought or experienced in Tokyo. In addition, anything and everything from all over Japan can also be had in Tokyo.  


Japanese culture is predisposed to absorb the surge of new information like a sponge. But exactly where and in what age did this spongelike disposition most successfully show itself? Was it in the Katsura Detached Palace, or in the Toshogu Shrine at Nikko, or in the ancient times of the Manyo poetry anthology, or during the flashy Genroku era of Edo? But what we are really asking is whether a true Japanese culture ever existed. Self-evidently, our culture has established various values where appropriate. It may be best compared to the infinity of lines in the palm of the hand. The struggle among conflicting values eventually settles into its proper place. There is neither genealogy nor evolution nor hieararchy setting one above another, rather everything is left up to human choices. It may be said that Japanese society affords countless channels for promoting selection.  


When people come into contact with truly attractive things, they inadvertently reach out toward them. On the one hand, there are no ugly flowers; unfortunately, unseemly industrial products do exist. Since there are those who grab quite randomly at things, such bastard species are rampant.  


To understand Japan, it is better to depend on things rather than words.  


There can be no doubt that the sensitivities of people from other countries who have chosen Japanese products are tuned into the frequencies that broadcast the beauty and quality we here in Japan produce.  


I am sufficiently moved by the beauty of the lunchbox to have wished to trace the history of its principles and structure. How satisfying it is that our country has created such force and power that even I, as a designer -- whose special field of endeavor is the shape of things -- stand in awe. And I believe that the lunchbox comprises a structure of salvation. I have come to realize that its magnificent organizing potential offers salvation for both people and things; indeed, it is a form of salvation just to come into contact with such beauty almost without effort. But its greatest salvation is the realization of a method for living richly with negligible resources. If such a technology can be employed in a systematic manner, it will certainly save the earth.

And if I am drawn to crazy people who seem to live in some entirely different world, maybe it's because they seem so certain that theirs can be saved.
I have just finished my second week of unemployment, and so might have expected by now to be able to say something about how that feels.  

For the first week, it felt a lot like working. Actually, it felt busier than working, for reasons that were pretty simple to identify. For the last year or so, my work has been following information-technology trends, learning as much as I could about every strange new acronym or product idea or standard, and staring into the middle distance trying to figure out what I thought it all was likely to amount to. You might protest that this does not sound like what most people mean by "work", in that its unproductiveness does not appear to be accomplished with quite enough mindless tedium or deliberately self-deluding idiocy. But it takes a lot of time and thought to do properly, and the last part is difficult.  

The truth, however, is that I was more or less going to do that stuff anyway. Possibly laying me off was thus actually an act of supreme cleverness on the part of my bosses, realizing that I was going to keep doing my job even if they stopped paying me for it. You might think that it kind of makes a difference whether I'm doing this stuff for them or me, but you would be wrong, since I more or less did not report my hypotheses to anybody. Left to my own I'll publish them here, anyway, where they will be far easier to find then they would be in any internal document repository (and, um, I worked for a document repositorifying company...).  

For the first week, then, I was still doing that job, and doing the easily full-time job of writing a new resume, organizing my contact list, sending out a lot of "Hey, now I'm really back in the market for interesting opportunities..." emails, and conducting a crash analysis of job-posting sites and the available tools for dealing with them. By the end of week one I had written no new songs, read less than .2 of a book, watched 3 movies and a soccer game, and, admittedly, spent a very satisfying amount of time trying to see if I could actually annoy our kittens more than they could annoy me. And I was still unemployed, but had one three phone interviews and one in person, and lined up one vaguely possible contracting gig and one more-likely one.  

Week two was a significant improvement. I followed up on a variety of work leads from week one, but spent relatively little time doing that. Instead I wrote two songs, did a remix, finished Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun, spent a while pounding on my friend Pito's RSS reader BlogBridge and sending meddlesome UI suggestions, watched some more movies and some inexplicably compelling Olympic curling, and napped with the cats. That felt much more like unemployment.  

I originally intended my first unemployed act to be drawing up a master plan for my use of my unemployed time. That still seems like a pretty good idea, but I haven't done it yet, and maybe I'll do it next week but maybe I won't. This is my first unemployed period since college, and I want to find out what happens when my brain actually absorbs the idea that inertia is not going to drag me anywhere. Getting a new job might be a perfectly good idea. But there are other ideas, and some of them would require me to be the sort of person who doesn't immediately fill the smallest empty space in his time with lists of how it should be reloaded.
It took me an extra day, much of which was spent being completely incapable of singing it at its original slower tempo, and then chewing through a small pile of CDs making infinitesimally different masters, but here is my valiant Valentine's song for my amazing wife Bethany, with, I hope, enough love to make up for the weird way in which it sounds like Bruce Hornsby asphyxiating in a storm drain.  

To Nevada From Japan
The NIN rebuild was done entirely in GarageBand, starting from Trent's files and using only cut/copy/paste/move, pitch-shifting and a little extra effects-processing.  

GarageBand is sleek, but barely adequate for even this crude project. Its current fatal limitation for my own music is that it doesn't do any kind of MIDI out, and thus can't drive external MIDI devices. It's cool that it has its own software instruments, but they're toy sounds compared to my Korg Triton, which I have no interest in reducing to a glorified keyboard controller.  

I unloaded a lot of my old random bits of music gear in the big object-purge when Beth moved in, so my setup is now pretty simple: the Triton, a Tascam 788 hard-drive recorder, a guitar, a big guitar multi-effects board, a fretless bass, some microphones, and a pair of Mackie powered monitors. I didn't use the guitar or bass on the new song, so everything other than my voice came from the Triton.  

There are five different loops on the drum track, mostly played by hand and then touched up in the event editor. I initially played the piano riff by hand, but couldn't get it to be legato enough, so I ended up transcribing it and then recreating it note by note in step-record. The Triton has a great dual-programmable arpeggiator, so for the burbly bass-line I step-recorded a custom arpeggiator pattern and then played the trigger notes in real-time. Or, more precisely, I first tried to play this on my real bass, but it made my hand bleed, so I slowed down what I was doing and then recreated an even faster version in the arpeggiator. I think everything else I just played by hand, the most complicated bit being some weird ghost noises in the quiet parts that required the ribbon controller and joystick. Another advantage to sequencing this stuff instead of recording it as audio, obviously, is that you can do all the punching in and out you want without any risk of stop/start artifacts, which saves a lot of time in a song like this where most of the individual parts come in and out a lot. All the mixing and effects-processing for the instrument parts were done in the Triton, too. I think in the end I used nine sequencer tracks and nine different synth programs, but I'm not sure what maximum note-polyphony I hit at any one moment.  

All the Triton stuff was originally done with internal sync, to cut down on button-pushing, but for the vocals the Triton was then slaved to external MIDI sync from the 788. The switch could have been essentially transparent, except that I had insisted on using one drum-loop in 7/4, so I had to recreate a matching tempo-map on the 788.  

I then did vocal takes ad nauseam on the 788, switching among several recorder tracks to compare takes. I tried some "harmony" vocals, too, which sounded fabulously terrible, so in the end stuck to a single vocal track, from a single continuous take. The 788 has two multi-effects units of its own, so all the vocal processing was done there: EQ, compression, de-essing, some chorus, a little reverb. The Triton was slaved to the 788 all the way to the final mixdown, so the instrument parts didn't go through any extra generations, and more significantly, remained in fully-editable sequence form even after the vocals were recorded.  

The combination of the storm and Beth being away resulted in my violating one cardinal rule of recording in this process. When I went to do the vocals I realized that I'd purged not only my one bedraggled pair of closed-ear headphones, but all my 1/4"-to-1/8" headphone adapters, and thus I couldn't even use my iPod earbuds for monitoring. So I did the vocals with the music actually playing in the room, me facing towards the monitors and the microphone facing away. The directional pattern of the microphone (an Audio-Technica Midnight Blues) turns out to be excellent, and produced almost no audible bleed-through even when soloing the vocal track.  

Mastered to CD-R on the 788, trimmed and normalized in Sound Studio on the Mac, converted to mp3 in iTunes.  

There's not much else to say about the compositional process, such as it was. I did most of the drums first, including a little bit of diagramming on paper and a bunch of just pounding on keys. Once I had the loops I went back to paper to figure out a tentative song-structure, sequenced that, and then fiddled with it until it seemed workable. The deepest original philosophical premise for the music was that it be 3:20 long, which I revised to 2:57 because one section felt tedious and I couldn't think of a way to fix it. The rest of the instruments were overlaid on the drums one at a time, with a fairly small amount of iteration since there aren't actually that many places in the song where there's a lot going on at once.  

For the vocals I started with nonsense lyrics to work out the melody and meter. Possibly I ended up with some nonsense lyrics in the finished piece, too, but at least they're different than the nonsense lyrics I began with. Sometimes I already have a story in mind before writing anything, but in this case all I had was one word ("Tantalizer"), so it took several drafts before anything even vaguely coherent materialized, and although I know what I think the thing ended up being about, I can't really explain why it ended up being about that.  

I always think I could get better melodies if I figured them out on the keyboard instead of just improvising them by singing, but when I try to do that I come up with notes I want to sing but can't, which is unhelpful. Some vocal lessons would increase my options, but then so would virtually any kind of music training, production discipline, writing forethought, etc. But as the last long silence testifies, I have a much bigger problem finding the time and emotional space to make any music, and it's pointless to worry about how bad your music is when you aren't making it.
There's little better for artistic perspective than seeing the internal mechanics of somebody else's creativity. The next thing on my music list after writing a new song myself was playing with the files Trent Reznor put up in GarageBand format a really long time ago.  

After a few hours of that, I don't feel quite so sheepish about "The Foreverists". I have no easy way of getting the multi-track sources out of my Triton and 788, so you'll have to trust me that piece by piece there's at least as much to my song as Trent's. It would be wildly foolish to judge a song by its soloed tracks, of course, and the ability to put simple pieces together evocatively is much different than the ability to simply stack them up. But as snowbound amusements go, smashing things apart and stacking up the bits to look like different monsters isn't bad.  

Will You Stay (rebuilt by glenn mcdonald from Nine Inch Nails' "The Hand That Feeds") (1.1M mp3)
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