Let me tell you about my favorite spot in all Korea. I won't name it, since I don't want to take the blame when, for other reasons, it inevitably gets too popular.
But I will say that you'll find it near a major Seoul art school. You have to go down some stairs to get to it, but once you enter, you'll find that you've gone not just underground, but back in time. There you can eat a mean plate of tofu kimchi, drink a stiff Long Beach iced tea, and spend the evening listening to the DJ of the night's selections from their wall of Korean vinyl records from the 60s, 70s, and 80s — and only those.
This might sound unremarkable if you engage in the West's, or even Japan's, thriving retro culture, but this place's singular focus on the music of thirty, forty, fifty years ago — and on the domestic music of thirty, forty, fifty years ago at that — makes it a true oddity in Korea. The Korean historical consciousness has long fascinated me: they'll tell you all sorts of stories from way back in the country's "5,000 years of unbroken history," but if you mention a ten-year-old song, they'll wonder what could ever interest you about such an irrelevant artifact.
I've heard of this conflict, or at least misunderstanding, erupting with some frequency and in various domains between Koreans and Korea-resident foreigners, especially Westerners, from music to style to architecture: many of the latter came to enjoy the very same elements of the culture many of the former would prefer to leave behind. It only exacerbates the situation when Koreans assume the Westerners got interested in Korea because of modern "K-pop." Trust me on this one: they did not get interested because of modern K-pop.
But they may have got interested because of old K-pop, or whatever came before K-pop proper. Here you can listen to three extended — and I mean extended — mixes of just that: pure Korean pop hits from the 70s and 80s, each clocking in around six hours. I can fire up any one of them and feel transported straight back into that favorite Seoul bar of mine, though I have to do without their decor of meticulously curated vintage electronics, fake palm trees, and — bizarrely, for a Los Angeles resident such as myself — posters of California.
So what draws me to this ever-more-distant time in a foreign land that I never could have even come close to experiencing first-hand? Many aspects do, but I find that one comes first to mind, something for which Korea has more recently grown quite famous indeed: plastic surgery. That is to say, they did a lot less of it in the 70s and 80s. Why do I consider that a good thing? Let's just say the proof is in the pop star.
We've already seen, in the pages of Boing Boing, several unions of technology and the aesthetics of Dutch neoplasticist painter Piet Mondrian. We've seen a Mondrian PC, a kinda-sorta Mondrian Creative Zen MP3 player (remember those?), and a Mondrian cake. (I don't know about you, but I consider cakes one of the noblest forms of technology.)
But now we've got the lowdown on perhaps the earliest Mondrian-tech collaboration: Japanese philosopher-programmer Hiroshi Kawano's 1964 algorithmic Mondrians. Overhead Compartment's Claudio Rivera has the story:
Why an artificial Mondrian? Perhaps there's an obvious and immediate affinity between his iconic compositions and such computer-generated figures as those that appeared in Japan's IBM Review in 1964. But Hiroshi Kawano did not simply digitize Piet Mondrian; it could be stated inversely that he was among the first to Mondrianize digital art. The visualization of color and form for Kawano follows from an apparently vital aesthetic process in which analysis bears the same "artificial" relation to programming as reduction might bear to painting. One is inclined to ask — What other kind of Mondrian could there possibly be?
Kawama spoke of his work in precise and programmatic terms, seemingly adopting a physics of predictive lab experimentation at the exclusion of messy empirical studies undertaken en plein air. The syntax and logical operators of the OKI symbolic input programming language, which served as his medium, constitute an experimental "style" in the artisanal, perhaps even botanical sense—a meaning retained in the Dutch "De Stijl"—and thereby invoke a rodlike connection, jamb, joint, or post. If algorithmic art hinges along such vertices, Kawano's fascination is with its pivotal motion.
The piece's prose may take you a bit longer than usual to process, granted, but I think the appeal of Kawano's hyper-pixelated yet bleeding-edge midcentury take on Mondrian speaks for itself — just as do "real" Mondrians themselves.
Everything I needed to know, I learned from Loveline. Throughout the entirety of high school and even some of middle school, I listened on a near-religious nightly basis — Sunday through Thursday-nightly, anyway — to take in Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky's words of complaint and wisdom, whether on sex and drugs, the show's official mandate, or on cars, house remodeling, the geography of Los Angeles, smoke alarm battery replacement, or a host of other seemingly tangential but actually central subjects.
Given my considerable professional interest in cities — I spend a lot of my time writing or talking about them — you'd think I grew up as one of those kinds who rushed straight to SimCity every day after school. And for a year or two there I did play it (or rather, its sequel SimCity 2000) quite a lot, but never seriously: when starting a new city I always used the terrain editor to build a giant hill I could fill with cheap hydroelectric plants, and I usually set the place on fire before too long.
Whenever I travel to a new city, I immediately get to work on a mental map of its coffee shops. I do this in part because they provide the points of a basic geographical framework, in part because they offer a window onto the life of their neighborhoods, in part because I can get work done in them (in my line, you don't really take vacations; you just set up laptop camp in other cafés), and in part because I wither away if I don't get a cappuccino on the daily. I usually plot out a mixture of a few independents, a lot of local chains — and, often, an enormous number of Starbucks locations.
It would take a hardcore Starbucks-hater to avoid them while traveling, and it seems their sheer ubiquity has made a hardcore Starbucks-hater out of more than a few travelers. This phenomenon inspired Jim Benning, travel writer and co-founder of the estimable World Hum, to create the short photo-audio essay called "Starbucks Versus the Traveler."
"Does the world's Starbucks cup runneth over?" asks Benning, pondering the rate of new outlets opening worldwide. "More to the point, for people who love travel and love our differences, what does this mean? Will Starbucks and other global businesses eventually stamp out local culture, as some fear?" He addresses the question with sounds and images collected during the many Starbucks experiences he and others have had while traveling in cities from Tijuana to Tokyo.
I once interviewed Benning on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. We talked about Starbucks and its supposed stamping-out of local culture, finding a less imminent threat than some do. Admittedly, I myself tend to avoid Starbucks while traveling, but had to become a regular customer in Japan, where only that highly controlled, endlessly self-replicating coffee-house chain consistently provides free wi-fi foreigners can use.
There, with almost all the elements of the physical and comestible environment around me fixed in a kind of ultraclean nationless nowhere, I realized that I could see everything Japanese around me — that is, the people, their personalities, and the stamp their attitudes put on even the mightiest global chain — that much more clearly. Sometimes the most exotic place you can go is, indeed, a Starbucks.
Even before I moved to Los Angeles, I set about finding ways to understand it. I knew the city wouldn't make it easy for me, but at least I had plenty of representations of it on film to learn from — the very movies, in fact, which had stoked my interest in Los Angeles in the first place. Who wouldn't find themselves drawn in by, to name one notable example, the Los Angeles of 2019 as envisioned by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which presents a dense, Japanified megalopolis sent back to the third-world industrial stages it never went through in the first place?
Blade Runner stands as the definitive 1980s vision of the Los Angeles as the future, and perhaps as the definitive work of cyberpunk cinema as well. But in the mid-1990s, Kathryn Bigelow (now best known for films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and then best known for, oh, probably Point Break) brought the tradition of high tech and low life back to Los Angeles with Strange Days, which introduces the technology of human thought storage and direct playback — a kind of combined illegal technology, illegal viewing material, and illegal stimulant — into a post-riots city characterized by violence and insecurity.
In the 21st century, Spike Jonze's Her used movie magic to create an altogether kinder, gentler future Los Angeles. It still has advanced and even troubling technology in the form of sentient operating systems, but hey, it also has — at long last! — a complete transit system. Jonze and his team dare to imagine a Los Angeles without cars, an idea that has become infinitely more plausible even since the time of Strange Days, by merging elements of the southern Californian metropolis with elements of Shanghai. Where Blade Runner sees Los Angeles headed toward Japan, Her sees it headed toward China.
In some ways, projections of the Los Angeles of the future tell you more about the city than the films that try to capture its present. Southland Tales, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's collision of satire, farce, polemic, zeitgeist movie, musical, and apocalypse narrative on Venice Beach, tells the most Philip K. Dickian story in Los Angeles cinema, even more so than the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?-adapting Blade Runner. Viewers have complained, to put it mildly, about Southland Tales' overreaching ambition, obvious incompleteness, and resultant lack of sense, but perhaps an ambitious, incomplete, senseless movie suits an ambitious, incomplete, senseless city.
I've made sixteen of these "Los Angeles, the City in Cinema" video essays so far, some exploring visions of Los Angeles' future, some of its present, and some of its past. Here's the complete list, as of this writing:
If you have any suggestions of Los Angeles movies to consider next, please don't hesitate to let me know. Every fiction film also inadvertently documents the place in which its story happens: its built environment, its social environment, or even just the way people think about it. That goes for movies new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — all the qualities, in other words, of the city itself.
If you have any interest at all in writing produced by the cultural exchange — or culture clash, if you prefer — between the West and Asia, you might consider keeping up with Signal 8 Press. Though a relatively new operation, they've already put out quite a few intriguing books, ranging formally from novels to travel memoirs to short story collections to college guides and geographically from China to Hong Kong to Laos to the Philippines to Korea.
Having read my own writing on Korea for The Guardian, Signal 8 author Giacomo Lee (@elegiacomo) reached out and offered me a chance to read his upcoming novel Funereal, a dark and sometimes surreal exploration of the country's drive for perfection, its unceasing competitiveness, and its conformist beauty culture — especially as they all exist, in lethally concentrated form, in the enormous, shapeshifting capital of Seoul.
Lee, a British former resident of Korea, accomplishes a literary act of which I know no precedent: convincingly rendering Korean characters through Western eyes. His countryman David Mitchell essayed a dystopian Korea in one layer of Cloud Atlas, but he set it in the unrecognizably distant future. Lee writes of the dystopian Korea of today, one that, in his conception, has driven itself nearly to the asylum with its own increasingly impossible standards and hopelessly unrealistic expectations.
Funereal's protagonist, a young lady in her late twenties named Soobin Shin, finds herself plucked from her dead-end donut-shop job by a regular customer, an entrepreneur who has come up with the potential next big thing in a culture perpetually on the lookout for next big things: OneLife, a service that puts on fake funerals for Koreans overwhelmed by their very existences, unwilling to go on, and need of the moment of reflection that only bursting alive out of a coffin in front of one's gathered black-clad friends and family can provide.
Having taken on the role of frontwoman in this fledgling company, Soobin truly believes she has stumbled onto her true calling until everything goes pear-shaped in this enterprise of fake death when real death involves itself — an inevitability, I suppose, in a country with suicide rates second only to those of Lithuania.
Lee didn't make up the fake-funeral thing out of whole cloth. In his article "Does Writing About Suicide Inspire Suicide?", he references famous Korean novelist Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which "features a 'suicide counselor' who helps his depressed clients kill themselves, while the main character I present symbolizes the opposite, a woman who buries her suicidal charges alive so that they can overcome their depression."
"It is, of course, an extreme solution," he adds, "but one inspired by an actual company that operates in the most affluent area of the country's capital." He also highlights the Vice documentary A Good Day To Die: Fake Funerals in South Korea, which surprised him "by showing not the private services imagined in my novel, as held in living rooms and offices for one person at a time, but by another way of doing business entirely": fake-burying en masse, for maximum efficiency.
Funereal doesn't come out out April 14, 2015, so I asked Lee to hand over the opening chapter so Boing Boing readers can give it a read and see what they think in the meantime. You can download it as a PDF here. As a fellow Korea enthusiast, I think I speak for both Lee and myself when I say that the country has plenty to love. But every country offers plenty not to love, and out of that grim material he as crafted the first Western novel of Korea's dark side.
Foreign residents of Tokyo: have you ever run into Yan-san? If so, did you buy him a drink? I've heard that described as standard practice for anyone who began their lifelong Japanese language-learning odyssey with Let's Learn Japanese, a 1984 production of The Japan Foundation.
Like every other such educational video series I've seen, Let's Learn Japanese teaches its language through a series of skits. But the "skits" in this series raised the game considerably with production values comparable to one of the better television dramas of the day. Their protagonist, the nationally and ethnically ambiguous Yan (played by Nick Muhrin, the reportedly still Japan-based musician all those former students are buying drinks), arrives in Tokyo to work at an architecture firm and tries his best to integrate with Japanese life.
I've blown through quite a few language-learning materials in my time, and only Let's Learn Japanese has compelled me to return again and again, not necessarily for review of the material — you can get it all down the first time through — for the sheer entertainment of revisiting not just Yan but sensei Mary Althaus, who explains the linguistic concepts at work, and especially the always-cheerful troupe of Mine, Sugihara, and Kaihō, who act out each one in context.
As a bit of promotion for the Japan Foundation, too, this series definitely worked on me. I volunteer at my local branch, the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, to this day, and even take language classes there. And they didn't stop with these videos; when you get done with this season, you can also watch the next, produced a decade later, which follows Yan's further adventures as a graduate student and puts in the teacher's seat a lady named Tae Umino. Next I get to Japan, I'll also keep an eye out for her, too — and her amazing knitwear.
While Bois, a former Radio Shack employee, does seize the opportunity dance on the company's future gravesite, he also provides a thoughtfully damning analysis of its countless missteps:
As this company has spent the last decade-plus trying to save itself, the happiness of the employees has always been the first to go overboard. Its store managers are worked so hard that they become unhappy, half-awake shadows of themselves. Labor laws have been brazenly ignored. Untold hours of labor haven't been paid for (when I quit, on good terms and with two weeks' notice, they withheld my final paychecks for months and wouldn't tell me why). Lawyers have been sent to shut down websites that have bad things to say about RadioShack. Employees who make a few dimes over minimum wage are pressured, shamed, and yelled at as though they're brokering million-dollar deals.
RadioShack is a rotten place to work, generally not a very good place to shop, and an untenable business to run. Everyone involved loses.
Amid all this, we might cast our minds back to happier days at the 'Shack, maybe by browsing the Radio Shack Catalog Archive, or by watching their old commercials like the one above. Time was, Radio Shack could charge prices that made Apple's look reasonable: not just $995 for a "portable data terminal," but $1399 for a car phone, and an astonishing $2495 for a cell phone.
True, that was 1987, but it was also 1987 dollars; the same price comes out to over $5301 today. You've got to stay up pretty late at night to misspend that kind of money coming in, but somehow, Radio Shack always managed.
Though I appreciate a well-made physical book, I don't collect the things aggressively as some do. Yet I can't suppress my desire to possess certain, highly specific volumes. At the top of that stack of literary desiderata stands this one by Generation X, Microserfs, and jPod author Douglas Coupland (star of Close Personal Friend, featured here last week).
"In 2000, Mike Howatson, a gifted Vancouver animator, and I produced an illustrated novel called God Hates Japan," writes Coupland on a blog he briefly kept at the New York Times. "It was published only in Japanese — beautifully and elegantly, I might add — by Kadokawa Shoten in 2001. It's the story of characters lost in a malaise that swept Japanese culture after the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980's and early 1990's. It also depicted the way some of these characters lived in the shadow of a death cult's 1995 sarin-gas assault on Tokyo's subway system."
Though he seldom deals directly with Japanese themes in his work, Coupland has a history with the country. He first went there in 1983, as an exchange student at the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo. Later, he would return for a degree in Japanese Business Science from the Japan-America Institute of Management Science ("I know, it's as random as it sounds").
A connection made there put God Hates Japan on the cutting edge of digital publishing. One of Coupland's classmates "owned a mobile phone advertising company in Tokyo, so we simultaneously published the book in a digital form that could be read via cell phone. Images from the book became animated and appeared on screen in between chunks of text as readers clicked their way through. It was kind of crazy, and maybe 11 people finished the whole thing (that's a lot of clicking), but the illustration and themes lent themselves to the format nicely, and it was definitely some kind of first."
The timing of Coupland's own experience in Japan placed him well to write about that malaise that set in after its seemingly unstoppable postwar economic growth ground to a halt. He worked as a researcher-designer at Magazine House in 1985 and 1986, a period of which he recalls this: "We'd go out for $4,000 lunches. It was obviously unsustainable, and everyone knew it, but it stopped nothing. It was a death spiral."
Still, even a "lost decade" in Japan has more to offer than a prosperous decade in a fair few other countries, and it all looks even more interesting when processed through the Couplandian filter. But will his large English-language readership ever get to read God Hates Japan?
Not before it goes through one further filter still. The publisher must, Coupland says, "find a novice Japanese-English translator, and then publish his or her first, uncorrected translation of the book. It would be such a wonderful piece of Japanglish, those weird contortions of English that the Japanese put on their shirts and products, mostly from the 1980's into the mid 1990's, but not anymore, really." Okay, young English Translation Studies majors of Japan: who dares take on this challenge?
Los Angeles is beautiful — there, I've stirred up a controversy already. But photographer Noé Montes has already out done me by making that claim not just in words but in images, and a series of striking ones, no less, with that very title.
Much of the shooting for it, Montes did through the window of an LAPD helicopter. As he told me in an interview on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, he found out soon after takeoff that the pilot didn't have any particular flight plan. Instead — as in the dreams of everyone fascinated with Los Angeles — he simple asked, "So, where to?"
You may remember Montes' name from when Xeni posted his Occupy Los Angeles portraits back in the Occupy heyday. His photographic output has only increased in variety and impressiveness in the years since; have a scroll through his portfolio to see the people, places, and things he's captured more recently in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Los Angeles may not conform to many traditional ideas of urban aesthetics, but as Montes' view of it proves, none can deny its intense visual interest. So why, I asked him straight-up in our interview, do so many people think of it as ugly?
"Well," he replied, "because it's kind of ugly!" And so I quote the sage words of graphic designer Tibor Kalman: "I have nothing against beauty, but it isn't very interesting." Unless, of course, it's beauty Los Angeles-style.
Specifically, you've got to look at Seattle, a city not just plenty of trees but a fair few interesting vending machines.
You may remember the new Seattle marijuana vending machine recently posted here at Boing Boing, but the Emerald City boasts at least one older and even more compelling example: a haunted one.
You'll find Seattle's "haunted vending machine" in Capitol Hill, not necessarily the first neighborhood in the city that comes to mind when you think of surviving repositories of weirdness, but there it stands nevertheless. I myself encountered this intriguingly freestanding, antiquated, and nearly illegible specimen accidentally, on a search for an Ethiopian restaurant. My subsequent research turned up an article wherein Vice's Hilary Pollack investigates.
"With its sun-bleached buttons and charmingly antiquated Mountain Dew logo, the Mystery Coke Machine has been spitting out sodas on the corner of John and Broadway for upwards of 15 years," Pollack writes, "but no one seems to know exactly for how long—or who re-stocks, maintains, or collects money from the thing. It's as though it fell out of a wormhole and landed free-standing onto this lonely corner."
Insert your 75 cents — a price only recently upped from 55 cents — and you get "beverages so random that you couldn't even think of them if you were playing Scattegories. Upon recently bestowing the machine with three dollars, I received a Mountain Dew White Out, a raspberry-flavored Nestea Brisk, a Hawaiian Punch, and a Grape Fanta."
Pollack finds out more about this machine than anyone has before, but the mystery remains essentially unsolved. I like it better that way; as long as the Mystery Coke Machine retains its mystery, it can continue inspiring articles like Pollack's and short films like Marcy Stone-Francois Mystery Soda above. "Someday this too will be the Old Weird America," once tweeted Jesse Walker. "Try to appreciate it now."
Recording my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture's Korea Tour last summer, I had some of the most fun hanging out with Chad Kirton, also known as DJ Chad, also known — when in the hip-hop game — as Fusion. Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Chad has lived in Korea for more than a decade now, most of that time in Busan, Korea's second-largest city down on its southeastern coast. He originally came to pay off his student loans by earning money teaching English, as many Westerners do, but somewhere along the way he became a bona fide Busan celebrity.
You can learn more about how this kid from Canada became a bilingual broadcaster, rapper (yes, he can freestyle in Korean), and television star from the podcast interview I recorded with him, or from the short documentary at the top produced by the people at Korean pop-culture fan site Hallyuback. As if those duties didn't give him enough to fill his 16-hour workday (a sure sign of his Koreanization), he still teaches English at a local university, too.
I do wonder what his students must think of having one of the city's famous faces for an English teacher. Some surely know him from the television program 통통통 ("Tong Tong Tong"), on the second half of whose episodes he takes on a mission in some part of Busan (often to seek out free food). In the shows below, Chad's segments begin at 13:25 and 13:56:
And when they needed to market a new laptop, no less a respected and feared Korean conglomerate than Samsung selected Chad as the official rapper to represent it:
Pretty good for a guy whose hometown, back when he was growing up, lacked so much as a Korean restaurant. It's got one now, but something tells me that won't lure him back from Busan anytime soon.
I have only two major urban regrets: that I'll never get to see Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre, and that I'll never get to see Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City. These structures, in most ways exact opposites, share only the qualities of having been demolished, and of once having contained a surprising range of activity.
The Tricorn Centre, designed by Rodney Gordon and built in 1966, stood in its gray concrete glory as perhaps England's most striking work of Brutalist architecture. Kowloon Walled City, designed by nobody in particular and built bit by improvised bit since the mid-1940s, stood as the densest place on Earth, with 3,250,000 inhabitants per square mile. (Manhattan, for reference, has under 67,000 per square mile.)
Essentially an informal settlement effectively controlled by neither Britain nor China, Kowloon Walled City took the shape of 300 both unregulated and irregular tower blocks mashed up into a kind of single unit, chockablock with residences, shops, opium dens, unlicensed dentists, and the stuff of 30,000 to 50,000 more or less normal lives, each one added to the accretion wherever it could fit. It fell to the wrecking ball in the early 1990s, but many memories of the lives lived within remain. City of Imagination, the short Wall Street Journal documentary at the top, draws upon them to reflect on the reality of this unprecedented and irreproducible urban environment.
Just as Kowloon Walled City went down, Ian Lambot and Greg Girard published City of Darkness, an extensive photographic and textual examination of the place in its final years. More recently, they pulled in £84,817 with a Kickstarter drive to produce City of Darkness Revisited, an update to the original book that expands on the story and corrects "the many urban legends that forever swirl around this extraordinary community."
But for every tall tale cut down, the legacy of a place like Kowloon Walled City inevitably grows two or three new ones. Hence its extremely, almost unfathomably real environment's popularity as a virtual one in works from William Gibson's Bridge trilogy to the video game Call of Duty Black Ops. It even served as the model for a Japanese arcade previously featured here on Boing Boing. When will they do the same for the poor old Tricorn?
As a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle enthusiast in childhood and a Los Angeles rapid transit enthusiast in adulthood, I should, by all rights, love Operation Blue Line, a ten-minute 1990 promotional video wherein the usually New York-based Heroes on a Half Shell defeat Gridlock, a villain bent on "suppressing all public information" about the Blue Line, the first branch of the city's modern rail system. It does, however, have a certain strike against it: its terribleness.
But then, Los Angeles transit riders have always had to put up with a lot. Between 1961 and 1990, this supposed "urban megalopolis" (in the words of Operation Blue Line's narrator) didn't have any rail lines at all, and even in 2015 we deal with a rapid transit system still incomplete but nevertheless promoted with a brazenness bordering on fraudulence: some posters boast of 80 train stations in a city that needs 800; others ask "What's not to love?" about a "rapid" bus line lacking almost every acknowledged element of bus rapid transit.
So in that sense, Operation Blue Line counts pretty much as business as usual for the promotional wing of the body then known as (and often called with irony) the Los Angeles Rapid Transit District. But at the end of the day, these guys in Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michaelangelo suits with surprisingly few points of articulation do at least vanquish Gridlock, leaving Angelenos relatively save to ride between downtown, Watts, Compton, Long Beach, and a great many disused-looking factories.
Eager Turtlemaniacs received VHS copies of Operation Blue Line handed out on July 14, 1990, the train's grand opening. For much more on the Blue and other Lines, true nerds may want to listen to my podcast interview with Ethan Elkind, author of Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail System and the Future of the City. In it, I ask him about everything we've all wanted to know on the subject, except for the most important issue: what superhero team will defend the Crenshaw Line?
The crystal city glistens in the moonlight. Three of the six moons of Summa Nulla are shining down, casting weird shadows in this abandoned city. Yeah, yeah — not totally abandoned. This was once an automated city; now the rusted slidewalks no longer move. The winds blow through the broken city.
Oh yeah, slimies — biogenetically engineered assassins out for the hunt. I can feel their mind nets sweeping the city.
So begins Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe, the very first cyberpunk radio drama — and still, to this day, by far the coolest. This bit of hard-boiled yet slightly goofy dialogue, tonally representative of the entire series, occurs between Ruby, the detective protagonist heavily armed with "subtle feminine charms and other, less subtle, persuasions" (and, oh, the power to slow down time at will) and what now sounds like an awfully Siri-esque digital assistant.
But at every moment, Ruby offers so much more than dialogue. Just listening to this clip of the opening, in which our heroine introduces herself while gunning down a slimy in pursuit of a frankie (local parlance for a highly artificial human) who appears to be her doppelgänger, will give you a sense of the series' richly layered and constantly stimulating soundscape.
An ever-shifting electronic score underlies almost the entirety of Ruby's three hours, interwoven with narration from Ruby herself, her conversations with a host of colorful secondary characters (human, alien, mechanical, and otherwise), and a wealth of evocative effects (I always thought Ruby's gun, the "Smith-Hitachi Godzilla Blaster," sounded particularly neat) to craft, in sound, the richest possible futuristic world. The whole production plays as if composed as one long piece of music; we might call it (apologies to Billy Idol) the finest cyberpunk album ever made.
William Gibson defined cyberpunk most succinctly as the intersection of "high tech and low life," something that happens in all of Ruby's 65 episodes. As a detective in the true Chandlerian tradition, Ruby deals with lowlives almost exclusively, not least the mustachioed, smoking jacket-clad tentacle monster The Tookah; Toots Mutant, part-human-part-"reptoid" leader of the "techno-punks"; and Rodant Kapoor, the pointy-nosed, beading-eyed, protruding-incisored humanoid who gets this adventure going by hiring her to investigate media manipulation on the planet of Summa Nulla, "the crossroads of the galaxy."
As for the high tech, Ruby also offers plenty of it, from those "plastiflesh"-covered frankies to automatic mind translators to personal "solar wings" to "air cars" and "slither trucks" (available at every rental agency). But true to the cyberpunk vision of future, a lot of this gear rarely functions perfectly, from juddery holographic communication devices to weather-controlling apparatus that doesn't work like it used to.
Ruby originally aired on the radio in 1982: the year, for those playing the cyberpunk history home game, of Blade Runner. And the former holds up sonically just as astonishingly well as the latter holds up visually. Now, for one week only, you can experience its aesthetically intricate, vastly imaginative, and even mythic and philosophical vision (or, rather, the sonic equivalent of a vision) yourself by downloading the whole series free at the web site of its producer, the ZBS Foundation.
I reached out to ZBS to make Ruby freely available to Boing Boing readers, and not only did they generously agree to do so, they provided the recently issued Ruby Refreshed, wherein composer Tim Clark has enhanced the original 21st century-evoking score with genuine 21st-century musical technology.
But even in un-refreshed form, Ruby sounds much more like it was recorded yesterday than 33 years ago. ZBS, founded in 1970 as a consciousness-raising media commune in upstate New York (abbreviation breakdown: "Zero Bull Shit"), had already logged well over a decade of radio drama production by that point. I discovered their work about twenty years ago when, as an elementary schooler, I happened upon a copy of Dreams of the Amazon at the library.
I soon found out that constituted but one of the many adventures of Jack Flanders, a hapless metaphysical explorer and, alongside Ruby, one of the twin icons of ZBS' universe. His own adventures have taken him not just through countless mental realms but countless physical ones: the Amazon, sure, but Bali, India, Sumatra, Belize, and Morocco — all filled with ambient sounds recorded in those very locations.
For more than seven years now, I've hosted and produced long-form interview podcasts. On Notebook on Cities and Culture, which I began a little over three years ago, I've taken the concept worldwide, traveling not just all over Los Angeles, where I live, but to cities like Portland, Vancouver, London, Mexico City, Osaka, Copenhagen, and Toronto. In each of them, I've interviewed all the cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene I could find.
Last summer, I decided to put together a season of Notebook on Cities and Culture focusing on just one country: South Korea, which at the moment strikes me as the most fascinating place going in Asia. So I packed up my trusty Zoom H4n recorder, headed across the Pacific, and spent six weeks talking with all sorts of people — Koreans, foreigners, Korean foreigners, and so on — about the work they do and the Korean cities they do it in.
The Korea Tour will continue into March, with a new interview available every three days. Guests still to come include Busan-based Argentine film critic Sofia Ferrero Carrega, Korea: The Impossible Country author Daniel Tudor, architect Minsuk Cho, and Modern Korea: All that Matters author Andrew Salmon. You can download episodes directly from the show's site or subscribe on iTunes. 들어 주셔서 감사합니다, 여러분!
For years, I've followed Craig Mod, a designer and essayist who splits his time between New York and Tokyo and who thinks about such subjects as photography, air travel, Haruki Murakami books, publishing, the experience of Japan, and coffee — in other words, the finer things in life. But like all of our obsessions, his have deeper connections, and I sense them when I read a passage like this one from his piece on drinking a near-perfect cup of "Façon blend" in a newly opened little coffee shop in Nakameguro:
Real craftspeople. Quiet. Focused. No chitter chatter. Not serious business but good business. Proud business. Smiles and good work.
Everyone has seen the Jiro movie.
It seems like Jiro is an aberration. Nobody could possibly care about anything else like Jiro cares about his sushi. The joy in exploring Japan is you quickly realize Jiro is not an aberration. Perhaps his skills are, but his ethos isn't. That ethos pervades. And what a joy it is to witness, unexpectedly, on the fourth floor of a new building, in a smoke filled café.
Whenever I go into a Japanese or Korean bookstore, I come away impressed, not just by the care that goes into their operations — though you really should see the uniforms in some of these places — but by the care that goes into their products. For whatever set of complex cultural reasons, a disproportionate number of publishers in northeast Asia put in the time, effort, and money for design work that makes their books desirable objects in and of themselves.
American publishers sometimes give lip service to the idea of a book's "physicality," but rarely do they put out anything better than what feel, in this day and age, like printed-out e-books. But the U.S. publishing scene has one glorious exception in the Seattle-based Chin Music Press, who have devoted themselves specifically to making books worthy of their own objecthood.
Given the level of their craft, no wonder Chin Music has such a strong Japan connection. The anthology Kuhaku, their very first publication, constituted "the celebration of a collective experience in contemporary Japan," and their most recent, Yoshinori Henguchi's bilingual poetry-photography-essay book Lizard Telepathy Fox Telepathy, intends to "plunge the reader into a subculture somewhere in the backstreets of Osaka."
But in parallel, they also put out books rooted firmly in American soil, such as the lines of New Orleans-related fiction and nonfiction as well as pure Americana in their catalog. And they not long ago redoubled their commitment to the physical world by opening up their own bookstore in Seattle, one of the U.S. cities with the readingest reputations.
After all this, it added up, to say the least, when I read the story of Chin Music and found out the identity of the press' founding designers: book designers Josh Powell and — you guessed it — Craig Mod. Everything connects, I guess, and not just in well-built novels.