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I’ve created a character known for his elaborate and beautiful smoking glassware. As his story takes place in Somerville, I thought I’d compare his work to the glass flowers at Harvard’s Natural History Museum. Some visual inspiration:
2008-03-22 03-23 Boston 176 Cambridge, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Glass Flowers of Leopold & Rudolph Blaschka
Glass Flowers: Matilija Poppy
Harvard Museum of Natural History
Glass Flowers: Ficus Carica (Fig Tree!)

Of course, I also wanted to study actual smoke architects.

Eric Doeringer stood out.

Untitled (Purple)

Mixed Media, 36 x 18 x 18″, 2002.

“Untitled (Purple) is both a gravity bong and illuminated fountain. When the user pulls up on the bowl, water drains out of the top of the fountain, sucking air (or smoke if the bowl is lit) into a large chamber. When the bowl is lowered, water begins to fill the chamber again, forcing the smoke out through the mouthpiece at the bottom of the fountain.”

Delicious Centipedes

It is hot. Last week, we came home from vacation to find a lazy fly half-dead on our bed. It’s been 100 degrees for days, and the flies aren’t having it. Few flap, and the ones that do will happily land on the first body or table in their path. Their reflexes have quit; It’s too damn hot.

The flies aren’t the only ones. The pedestrians of Baltimore have given up on waiting for walk lights. If you’re walking, then you’re trying to get to wherever you’re going, which will probably be cooler than it is outside, as quick as you can. Those guys in cars have air-conditioning; they’ll stop to let you pass. Anyway, with heat like this, it gets hard to see. Maybe you don’t notice the traffic oncoming, or your eyes are fixed down to the pavement, not up toward the sun. The air moves in dishwater hued waves. It gets to you.

Last night I saw a mouse in our kitchen. He didn’t dash away, but lazily wiggled behind our stove. So vulnerable, his tiny tail waving around as he took a whole minute to ease into hiding. The cat, an extravagant furball, is too hot to chase him away.

None of this matters, though, when you spend most of your time in an air-conditioned oasis, your twelve by seven foot bedroom, at home. Or, that would be the case, at least, if the cold’s contrast to heat didn’t bring out other intruders.

A three-inch centipede crawls from a crevice between our crooked walls. It pauses, adjusting to the room’s dim light, then dashes across the floor. Upon countless legs it ascends wooden paneling, until it is at eye level across from where I sit. It is a deep brown-black the color of my hair.

I turn to science for comfort. Do centipedes bite? Surely not (in fact, they do). Are they short-lived? Of course, and they’ll die off quickly (again, false; they live five to seven years). Being as large as they are, they have to be solitary creatures, right? Lonely, singular, indepedent (Untrue, they nest in hundred strong hoards). As I learn about the creature in front of me, my resolve to kill it grows. Before I find a weapon to do it, he’s outside of my reach. Racing to and fro across my room’s ceiling, directly over the bed in which I sit, he seems to consciously taunt me.

It was late, and I couldn’t help but project malicious intent upon This Thing. When I’m the last one awake, I fall to paranoia. This single specimen stands for a swirling nest of centipedal filth, each member of which must be bent on disturbing my peace. For now, they have been appearing one at time, every night at about the same hour. If this is not a sign of a carefully planned attack, then it is at least a disturbing coincidence. I fear that some night I’ll wake to find my walls alive with them. In a nightmare, my roommate and I hop barefoot across our living room as giant centipedes nip at our toes. We can not escape them. When I wake to find my floor squirming with tiny white larva, it seems my dream has come true.

I saw the ending of Infinite Jest coming about two-hundred pages before I finished the book. James O. Incandenza appears in the present for the first time in the book, hovering over Don Gately’s hospital bed. There’ s no mistaking who the wraith is, and the preponderance of ten-point vocab words popping in to Gately’s consciousness apropos of nowhere validate that his ghost is real as a fictional ghost has ever been.

There are things we just keep doing in life because we think if we do it, we’ll get some closure. What drives the junky forward? Physical addiction, yes, but there’s also that silent hope that the next high will be the high that will negate the need for other ones. In Joelle’s case, there’s no tiptoeing about it: She’s looking for Too much fun. You’re never going to not be an addict once you become one, so what’s the point in quitting? Why not just die doing what you, if actions really do speak louder than words, really love?

The tennis kids aren’t going to fare much better. After that high pressure Enfield Tennis Academy education, to go anywhere but the Show means they’re just going to be a “former tennis player” in maturity. The ones who do go pro will have to fight to stay there for as long as their muscles and skills support them. There’s always the next match, there’s always the next hit.

Real addiction, real habit lies in that uncanny place outside of what one might feel comfortable calling the self. That’s not just true of drugs. For every psychopathic hedge fund manager, there’s another who will tell you “This is what I do for a living, but it’s not who I really am.”

I want Don Gately to do well. He’s an Andre the Giant type whose strength pigeonholed him. I don’t see any other way to put it, really.

Who is happy? Happiness is investing oneself entirely in the creation of a thing outside of oneself. This thing can be “completed”, is completed upon the moment of its execution, its final entrance into the world. If the self is the site of improvement, happiness will be elusive. Or rather, happiness ought not be tied to the physical elements of the self. The physical wants to approach decay. Perhaps in the fight itself, the practice of the routine without an investment in the physical appearance of the body, one can find happiness. In the completion of a race, one might be happy for a moment. There is no telos for the thinking. Only at the lowest levels of intelligence can one invest all of one’s cognitive energy into a task. If one has a “single-channel” mode of thinking, maybe one can achieve bliss. Mario often seems like this. His pleasure is an extension of his body, latched onto his back with a customized rig. But the ETA boys won’t find that happiness. Why did James O. Incandenza produce films? Maybe the finitude of each filmic project attracted him. But he found that he was not the type who could “finish” a film, and the mode of cartridge distribution didn’t help. In the world of Infinite Jest, the big release doesn’t exist. And for one with so little commercial appeal as Incandenza, that release would never have been high profile enough to have satisfied his longing, anyway.

The suspension of the self into the external product.

Joelle’s beauty which becomes too much.

Avril’s infidelity.

Why did the Mad Stork kill himself?  He saw something beautiful and sought to film the pure in Joelle, or did he? On the back of purity, the most sinister exists. Young Hal ate the fungus. Though he never touched her so, Himself was thought to have trysted with Joelle. The idea of someone approaching such a temptation without succumbing unfathomable. Maybe that was his last tragedy, a triumph after which it was OK to die.

Photo by Yoram Reshef

At MIT, Professor Neri Oxman researches material manufacturing methods that mimic naturally occurring processes. She suggests that her work might yield new armor or insulating materials, and she hopes that it will one day be scalable to apply to entire buildings.

Oxman’s name might be familiar. She appeared on the cover of Fast Company and the pages of Interview, and when you Google Neri Oxman, the most popular results reveal an interest in her marital status before returning back to MIT, the place of her professorship.

Not comfortable being merely a medical student, materials designer, computer programmer, artist, and public speaker in her fewer than forty years, Neri seems to also have time to appreciate Borges. Her latest exhibit, the deliciously titled “Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet,” explores the surrealist’s creatures each as the embodiment of a trait toward which humans aspire. The powers that have eluded humans so far, personal flying wings and elective invisibility, are embodied by each of her sculptures at the Center Pompidou in Paris.

That a woman so well-composed by nature would hold the latter’s processes in such high regard should not be surprising. In truth, it would be easy to dismiss her ideas as yet another speculative fancy never to have bearing upon society-at-large. Whether one thinks she is a prophet of what is to come, or another sensationalist academic is not the argument here. Instead, her ideas should be read and shared because they dare to start from scratch rather than polish old paradigms.

Neri Oxman for GQAmidst features on blonde Swedish DJs and this summer’s best sweaters, GQ still hosts a 2009 article about Oxman on its webpage. It might be the best place to begin to understand her past, present, and future. The daughter of two architects, Oxman went to medical school before deciding she did not wish to be a doctor. After a bout of architectural studies, she landed at MIT’s Media Lab, where she develops new building materials:

One of her big inspirations? Human bone. Bones get thicker when a woman is pregnant and thinner when people are in outer space. It’s exactly this process she’s trying to mimic with her latest project: composite walls made of rubber, plastic, and other materials. They’re designed to react to structural and environmental factors like weight and wind, forming columns and windows in the ideal places.

As she told Interviewwhen designing a new building, “Forget about the way it looks,” she says. “Think about how it behaves.”

In a lecture given to a Pop! Tech audience, Oxman says that she is not interested in designing objects, so much as she is concerned with processes that create forms. After millennia of teasing scultpures and buildings out of marble and glass, we are now close to having 3D printing technology that is scalable for multi-level projects. If that is the case, why shouldn’t our buildings be made from materials adapted to the climate they inhabit? Oxman would say that we shouldn’t find materials to fit our climates, but that we should instead design processes that allow us to assess local conditions and create materials that respond to climate. Just as organic evolution led to a vast diversity in sun-determined melanin levels responding to light and shade, so too should we demand designers to create efficient and sensical building materials.

But will it ever be feasible to patiently calibrate and print building materials when there is concrete to be had? “Nature knows how to organize  matter,” into muscles, silk, trees, and other systems. But nature is stranger to what Oxman calls pumps (“that which enables us to build taller) and wheels (“that which allows us to move faster”). We humans opt for targeted single-function design and building, whereas nature supports the calm unfolding of adapted processes. If animals and atmosphere could speak, they might ask us, if you please, to slow down and give them tie to adjust to our rapid expansion of population, needs, and resource use.

Oxman asks whether, by emulating nature’s methods, we might also mirror its pace and, as a result, become a more sustainable race.

Until she finds the manufacturer willing to employ her methods toward building these new materials, Oxman is likely to continue working on smaller projects for art museums and academic audiences. These works are no less innovative. One recent project, Second Skin, aims to map the pain profile of individual patients. Inspired by animal coding patterns, such as the colored spots on a cheetah or Dalmation, Second Skin is a customized healing device 3D printed according the pains of the injured. Instead of color, the finished product would control the stiffness of each printed bit of the Second Skin garment. For example, Oxman’s specially designed 3D printer would proffer a protective glove to ameliorate carpal tunnel syndrome. If in the future we can map the pain profile of each patient, we will have the power to create a brace that will best help the patient in a way that no mass produced tool ever can.

Oxman’s work provokes more questions than she has time to pursue, and it leaves one wonder whether there are others attempting to integrate biological senses and mechanisms into mechanical production and analysis. Should we rest at finding methods for printing variegated surfaces that are responsive to all natural elements, or should we also think of ways to automate their building beyond the 3D printer? Would it be possible ever to seed the slow accumulation of a house, defined loosely by a programmable substance that grows as thick as a tree’s wood? Could we experiment in ghost towns, using them as sites for testing technologies that “grow” a network of transit tunnels and roads? There are robots that wear their lifelessness without artifice, but there are also those that approach, asymptotic, life. But do we have many that work random neural misfires and revelations into their programming? Are their computer programs that, when they reach an error, troubleshoot it with human perspicacity? Will a robot ever kick the computer it seeks to fix out of frustration, much in the way that a man might hit a cathode ray TV stuck on static?

Related links:
The following explore designs inspired by nature, rather than processes.

Brilliant Bio-Design: 14 Animal Inspired Inventions

Biomimicry Institute