Wednesday 31 August 2011

My favourite stationery

This (fascinating*) article about the debut of a new range of paperclips (Acco's Klix, pictured above) gives me an excuse to post a picture of my absolute favourite - better than Sharpies, better than new pencils - item of stationery:

Not only are they very good at holding pieces of paper together, the little boxes are like the stationery version of Tiffanys. Love.

For a more in-depth review of the new Acco Klix, see this Office Supply Geek post.

* Honestly - fascinating. The American paperclip industry is protected from Chinese manufacturing by import tariffs. Americans purchase more than 30 paperclips per capita each year. Acco is currently undertaking a major project to ensure they get exactly 100 paperclips into each container (they used to put in 102, to be on the safe side if people counted). Fascinating.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Private or public?

Earlier this year (I think) I talked on Radio New Zealand National about the rules and restrictions surrounding photography in art galleries.

Tangentially linked - a film that shows what happened when the London Street Photography Festival sent six photographer out to shoot in public locations in London.

Tuesday 23 August 2011


It's a little old now, but when I first saw it, this announcement of start-up grants for web technology projects in the universities, museums, libraries and archives by the National Endowment for the Humanities filled me with envy. Here's a random sampling of some of the successful projects:

Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts -- Minneapolis, MN
HD 51490, Enhancing the Humanities Through Innovation: The Extended Collection Project
Katherine Milton, Project Director
Outright: $25,000
To support: Development of a pilot program for training docents in using digital tours and resources.

Museum of the City of New York -- New York, NY
HD 51480, Improving Digital Record Annotation Capabilities with Open sourced Ontologies and Crowd sourced Workers
Lacy Schutz, Project Director
Outright: $50,000
To support: The development of methods and tools to facilitate the description of digitized primary sources by combining "crowdsourcing" tactics with linked open data and semantic Web technologies.

New York Public Library -- New York, NY
HD 51427, MOVER [a Multimodal Open Source Variorum eBook Reader]
Doug Reside, Project Director
Outright: $50,000
To support: The development of a prototype mobile application to allow users to study multimedia variorum editions of musical theater plays.

It's the development of prototypes that particularly intrigues me. At work this year we've been able to first prototype and then 'productionise' (terrible word) a system that will be publicly released shortly, and the ability to quickly add, test, tweak or drop functionality and features was a god-send. Prototypes also dramatically reduce the risk of failure - they give everyone time to figure out where the true value in a product really lies, something that's not always obvious at the beginning of a large web project (you'd like to think that's not the case, but I've found it often is).

Inevitably, my usual final line: I wish there was this kind of support for test projects in New Zealand. But a final, final line - I wonder if there's a condition attached to these grants that the 'learnings' (another terrible word) and code from these products and prototypes has to be released back into the community?

Sunday 21 August 2011

Happy anniversary baby

Today is the 100th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre - and the 50th anniversary of another heist I'd never heard of, the lifting of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London. The Guardian has a good story about the two snatches.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Disaster preparedness

First up, the director of the American National Gallery is called Earl “Rusty” Powell III. I want more New Zealand directors to have diminutives - even better, I would like them to have wrestler names, like 'Mad Dog' and 'The Axe'.

Secondly, and more on topic - an interesting article about National Gallery curator Andrew Robison, who is the guardian of seven black, cloth-lined boxes that constitute the gallery's 'in case of World War III' collection of works on paper:

In 1979, with Washington worried about 52 hostages in Tehran and terrorist threats at home, Robison’s boss asked him to create a big container for works of the highest value. If catastrophe hit, the container could be spirited away to an undisclosed location. Today, Robison has seven boxes in two separate storerooms — four for European holdings, three for American. These do not include the museum’s 10,000 photographs, 3,800 paintings and 2,900 sculptures, outside of Robison’s purview and mostly too big for any mad dash out the building. And because his works are so fragile and light-sensitive, they live most of their lives in protective storage, going on the walls for viewing only in short spurts.

The fact I found most interesting:

During Robison’s 38-year tenure, the works-on-paper collection more than doubled, from 50,000 to 106,000, and routinely his team found additions that pushed out other masterworks. In fact, only 27 percent of what Robison first put in the boxes in 1979 is still inside them.

The article is a little sneering about curators ("Robison is neither a rogue nor a prig, the two usual poles of cultural debate") but still an interesting peek behind the scenes. I wonder what's on our disaster boxes?

Tuesday 16 August 2011


The first reviews of Pottermore are coming out, and I feel like I'm glimpsing the future of something. Maybe it's the future of how we consume 'books'; maybe it's the future of a new relationship with authors.*

Even as a non-avid Harry Potter reader (I think I've read most of the books, but I'm not sure**) I can completely see the appeal of this massively immersive experience. Pottermore only features the first book in the series so far, but Rowlings has added reams of backstory, notes, ideas that were ditched, and the kinds of activities fans (and non-avid readers) will likely go nuts for. From Bryan Young's review on Huffington Post

As I went through to choose my wand, I was asked a series of questions, written by Rowling herself, before a wand chose me.

I was assigned a Hawthorne wand with a unicorn core, 10 and 3/4's inches, and of a slightly springy flexibility. It was very cool and seemed very personalized, but you don't realize how personalized until the next screen where you're able to explore what all the different sorts of wand cores and woods mean. There's hundreds of possible combinations, thousands maybe, and somehow when I read about typical personality traits of wizards with my wand it seemed oddly accurate. Magic? Maybe.

It goes deeper from there:

You're sorted into a house at Hogwarts through a series of questions. The questions don't seem to have obvious paths to any specific house but, again, the results seem oddly prescient. As I read the books, I was quite confident I'd be sorted into Ravenclaw and this only confirmed my suspicions.

From there, you're granted access to the common room of your house and the majority of social networking begins. You can link up to Facebook and find friends of your own inside Pottermore, assign them nicknames, comment on their activities, and give them gifts of the loot you've found throughout the book.

But there's even more to do. You can cast spells and duel with fellow (live) students, you can make potions, and keep track of house points in the Great Hall. In fact, there is an active competition for the House Cup and you see the house points for all four houses in the Great Hall.

For every kid - and adult - who wanted to be The Chosen One, swept off into a magical world of spells and portent and symbolism and best friends, this is it. It's some new form of entertainment/social networking/fanfic/alternate reality that I can't put my finger on yet, but that intrigues me.

First review of Pottermore - the Guardian
Background on Pottermore - Wired

*One of my first thoughts was - do I want to be this close to authors? I can see the appeal for Neil Gaiman fans, or George R.R. Martin fans, or Terry Pratchett readers. But do I want BloodMeridianMore? No. No, I don't.
** I recently read the last book. I read the epilogue first. I was Disappointed.

Friday 12 August 2011

Apocalypse Friday

My new favourite discovery, courtesy of Chris McDowall on Twitter - Wellingtonian Tim Denee. I'm intrigued by this early test panel for a potential post-apocalyptic comic set in Wellington.

In his description of the idea, Denee references Cormac McCarthy. On the same day that I saw that cartoon I fortuitiously stumbled across a link to this 2007 Rolling Stone article about McCarthy and his involvement with the interdisciplinary science research centre, the Santa Fe Institute.

"When I was a kid, I was very interested in the natural world," he says. "To this day, during casual conversations, little-known facts about the natural world will just crop up." On a dime, McCarthy can slip into a thirtyminute treatise on some arcane biological phenomenon. "Voles leave trails where they go, like markings," he'll say out of the blue. "They're mostly composed of urine, but there are other substances as well. One absorbs ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. But guess who can see it? The raptors flying overhead can see it. They have ultraviolet vision! That's just very interesting. You think about these birds - they're not looking for voles, they're looking for ultraviolet trails through the weeds."

It's a fascinating profile, and this is my favourite line:

"People ask me, 'Why are you interested in physics?' But why would you not be? To me, the most curious thing of all is incuriosity. I just don't get it."

I've always wanted to have something in common with Cormac McCarthy.

Untitled work by Tim Denee,

Thursday 11 August 2011


Crowdsourcing is going to be one of the themes of this year's NDF conference - asking the public to help you fix or supplement the data and collections from cultural institutions has certainly moved from being brave three or four years ago to being mainstream today.

That's why two recent stories about crowdsourcing caught my eye. Photo agency Magnum has partnered with Tagasauris, a photo-tagging company ,to encourage more specialist tagging of their archive. As reported in the Independent:

Tagasauris already registers some 2,500 taggers working across the Magnum archive. There is, however, one problem with their work: it isn't necessarily specialised. While these taggers might be able to offer general information, for the most part they lack the kind of expert knowledge that could contribute more meaningfully – the nature of the film used for a particular shot, perhaps, or the back story of the photographer.

Social networking and a bit of competitive gaming are, hopefully, going to get the specialists working:

Magnum hopes to recruit would-be gamers with superior expertise through social networking – it currently has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter and 135,000 Facebookers who "like" its page. Every time there is a new image to be inspected, it will be posted on Magnum's Twitter feed. Participants can share the photos, spreading the knowledge base wider.


Carter insists there's yet more to be gained by having contributors compete with one another. When The New York Times photojournalism blog posted an article on the Magnum project, several thousand people contacted the agency. "The question is: how much broader would that response have been if the task was gamified? My suspicion is that there are millions of eligible people who would do it," says Carter.

(This blog post from the New York Times has more details about quality control and linking up the metadata, if such things ring your bells.)

The project is currently limited, according to the Independent, to 50 volunteers - you can sign up to be accepted later on . Interestingly, this Wired article, about Tagasauris tagging that found previously uncatalogued photos taken on the set of American Graffiti, notes that rather than 'volunteers' in the sense we might immediately think of, the work is being done through Amazon's Mechanical Turks programme.

My own favourite crowdsourcing projects are focused on the correction of the muddly text produced when documents/manuscripts are digitised and then 'translated' into searchable text using optical character recognition. The translation isn't by any means exact - even crisp tyepwritten documents will render errors, while 19th century newspapers - which are usually digitised from microfilm, vary from 78% to 98% accurate. 98% accurate sounds great, until you realise that it's not that only two words in every hundred that will be mangled - every character has a 2% chance of be mis- or unrecognised, and every word with a muddled character risks being unsearchable.

So I was delighted to see that massive project is being undertaken to digitise and correct the two weekly magazines that Charles Dickens edited, in time for Dickens' bicentenary in 2012. Appealingly, the site has been released in beta, and volunteers can make corrections as the site continues to be developed.

I signed up last night to have a play - while the actual editing interface is a delight to use, and the instructions thorough and easy to follow, I've yet to find an easy way of completing one page and moving on to the next, without having to go to the homepage of the site each time. Ditto, it took me several minutes to find something I could do - unlike the Australian National Library's newspaper correction project, which I've also contributed to, here you 'claim' a journal issue and it is locked so only you can edit it. It would have been useful to see a list of unclaimed journals to choose from.

But I'm being picky. It's a great project, a 24-page issue feels like a manageable and worthwhile piece of work, and I'm looking forward to it.

Monday 8 August 2011

At the art fair

This year's Auckland Art Fair felt bigger and lighter (almost scarily so - the sunshine pours into the new Viaduct events centre, often making it hard to get a good look at anything behind glass, and I imagine meaning a lot of the works on paper that dealers took along will be recuperating in a dark room for some time) but also somehow less exciting. Perhaps it was because the 2009 edition was my first art fair; perhaps because in general dealers opted for a tasting platter / stockroom approach and there were few big ticket items (large Robinsons, Parekowhais, Picks or Cottons) in evidence.

Having said that, there were some doozies. Michael Lett, as Over the net noted on the opening night, had another stellar showing. Giving over the whole space to Campbell Patterson, Lett festooned the walls with Patterson's blotchy, scabby, sultana-bran-and-spit spotted towels (you've gotta love something so determinedly hard to preserve being offered up on this occasion). Patterson's new video work - a tight close-up of the artist's head on its side on a concrete floor, mouth jammed with three ever so slowly melting yellow iceblocks - was transfixing.

Robert Heald
laid out my favourite stand - a stripped back presentation that both captured his aesthetic and the programme he's putting together in Wellington, and formed the best example of an actual show at the fair. A wall where two new Patrick Lundberg painted 'shoelaces' were punctuated by two small examples of Lundberg's found objects with carefully excised paint layers was restful, thoughtful, and good to look at, while three of John Ward Knox's light and airy canvases held the back wall.

Hamish McKay also went for the curated approach, while still managing to create a joyous jumble, uplifting a decent chunk of work from the recent collaborative project by jeweller Karl Fritsch, furniture maker Martino Gamper and artist Francis Upritchard and laying it out again in Auckland. Fond as I am of these pieces, it's now the third time I've seen them, and as a spoiled art viewer I would have liked to see something new. Then again, the collaboration is so damn appealing you can see why McKay wants to spend as much time with the works as possible - and to get them in front of Auckland eyes.

Of the dealers who took the stockroom approach, Darren Knight Gallery used a monochrome palette to bind together the work of a number of artists, including a covetable watercolour portrait by Ricky Swallow and an interesting new work by Michael Harrison. I also would have liked to have gotten a closer look at the new Fiona Pardington photos at {Suite} Gallery which were suffering a little from the glare issue: big, dark pulpy images of dramatic artificial flowers that seem like the plus-size of the series of small, sexy cigarette-card sized works she made a few years ago (a pair of plush lips, a bruised overblown rose, a sparrow in a fist). Kushana Bush had a nice selection at Brett McDowell's stand (another of the more restrained and more coherent instances at the fair) and I've also given my abstract-loving heart away to Selina Foote, who had two works at Sue Crockford.

But some of the best stuff was back at the dealers' actual galleries. More on that later this week.

Friday 5 August 2011

Web muster

From McSweeneys - Young people are reading more than you; maybe its because the YA market is booming:

Between 1995 and 1997, the number of young adult titles published per year fell dramatically, dropping from 5,000 to just over 3,000, according to R.R. Bowker’s Publishers Weekly. In 2009, there were over 30,000.

From the New York Review of Books blog - goodbye Helvetica, hello Optima (only the piece is much more serious and eloquent than I'm making it sound)

Optima is the anti-Helvetica. Zapf designed it in the early 1950s, around the same time that Helvetica was taking shape, but he had a completely different and far more profound sense of what a typeface ought to be. Instead of being mathematically perfect and untethered to a particular time or place, Optima embodies a subtle understanding of history. It is nominally a sans-serif, but its lines swell subtly toward their endpoints, with the result that they suggest classical serifs without actually having them. Zapf based the letterforms on carvings he found on Italian renaissance grave stones, and their overall shape and proportions unmistakably derive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But their sleek lines suggest the aerodynamic curves of modern technology, and the whole design could only have been invented in the mid-twentieth century.

And in the Guardian, Martin Creed's piece for the Edinburgh festival - "a work of art so perfectly integrated into the world that you feel a bit of a fool for making a fuss over it." (Does anyone else wish the Guardian put in more pictures?)

Thursday 4 August 2011

NDF2011 first speaker announcement

Right now, almost all my time and thought that doesn't get absorbed by my paid job is getting absorbed by my not-paid job, co-organising the National Digital Forum conference.*

So it's with great joy that I get to announce the first batch of confirmed speakers:


Mitchell Whitelaw, University of Canberra,
Michael Lascerides, New York Public Library,
Third keynote TBC


Lucinda Blaser, National Maritime Museum, on improving collection data and encouraging conversations through crowdsourcing and partnering projects

Melanie Cooper, Auckland Museum: ‘From ship to shore and back: Growing an audience around a Biodiscovery Expedition to the Kermadec Islands’

Susan Corbett, Victoria University of Wellington: ‘Cultural heritage institutions, digitisation, and copyright: are they compatible?’

Ryan Donahue, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, on the responsibilities, challenges and roles for cultural heritage and technology in digital preservation

Arapata Hakiwai and Philip Edgar, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on Te Papa’s research project to discover, inventory, gather, make accessible and encourage connections with Māori and Moriori taonga held outside New Zealand

Tim Jones, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, on a collaboration with volunteers working at home to gather geographical coordinates for locations depicted in works in the Gallery's collection

Chris McDowall, Digital New Zealand, giving a visual exploration of New Zealand’s digital heritage

Andy Neale, Digital New Zealand, on myth-busting the API

Michael Parry, Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), on the ways cultural organisations are turning to mobile devices to represent various parts of their activities and functions – with mixed success

Paddy Plunkett, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, on the use of Agile development methods in the heritage sector

Anna Raunik, State Library of Queensland: ‘What's ours is yours - or is it? How open is our data?’ - the National and State Libraries Australasia Libraryhack project

Kate Stone, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, on the place of websites like australianscreen in the current online environment

Tim Sherratt, independent: ‘It’s all about the stuff’

Elycia Wallis, Museum Victoria, on the Biodiversity Heritage Library in Australia, a collaborative effort between libraries in museums, herbaria and collecting institutions including CSIRO, and linking to the Biodiversity Heritage Library globally

Kate Woodall, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa: 'Layered Journeys: exploiting digital media to create experiences for people beyond the usual museum visit’


On APIs:
Carlos Arroyo and Rebecca Pinchin, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Lawrence Chiles, National Maritime Museum, London
Graham Davies, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Andy Neale, Digital New Zealand

On film and moving image:
Brenda Leeuwenberg, NZ on Screen
Michael Parry, ACMI, Melbourne
Kate Stone, AustralianScreen

On mobile:
Virgina Gow, Auckland Museum
Michael Parry, ACMI, Melbourne
Simon Sherrin, Museum Victoria

On collaboration and community:
Annette Beattie, Hutt City Libraries
Smita Biswas (Tauranga City Libraries) and Walter McGinnis (Katipo/independent)
Jackie Gurden, West Coast Heritage and Libraries

On iwi and Māori initiatives:
Michael Hennessy, Ab Ovo - Io Media
Honiana Love and Claire Hall, Te Reo o Taranaki Charitable Trust

On learnings from digitisation projects:
Sarah McClintock, Archives New Zealand
Vye Perrone, University of Waikato Library
Claire Stent, Statistics New Zealand


Euan Cochrane, Archives New Zealand: ‘Emulation for Fun and Profit: Opening Old Digital Information for Reuse’
Paul Rowe, Vernon Systems: ‘Putting things in their place’
Erika Taylor, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, on curators and the digital world
Simon Sherrin, Museum Victoria, on the Field Guide of Victorian Animals

Of course, this is a preliminary announcement & subject to change. But it's still pretty damn exciting.

Also worth noting - applications for subsidised registrations close on 8 August. This year we've made the criteria broader than ever before, so do check it out.

*My co-organisers are Brenda Leeuwenberg and Celeste Milnes. They're awesome.

Monday 1 August 2011


Over the weekend I finished E.O. Wilson's Anthill, the octogenarian Pulitzer Prize winning scientists first novel, a roman a clef about growing up in the American South as a bug-obsessed little boy.

The majority of the book reads like a John Grisham with less zap (you can see what I thought here, if you like). But the central section - where Wilson describes the rise and fall of three closely located ant colonies - is some of the best writing I've read this year. The fate of these ants is Homeric, and utterly gripping.

Luckily, the first part of this study was reproduced in the New Yorker last year, and is freely available online.

The Trailhead Queen was dead. At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.