Friday, September 25, 2015

Nixie Redux

Note: this topic came in second place on our recent poll.

A few years ago, at my old, unlamented job, I had occasion to go up to the IT department for a new security key and saw one of the techies up there had a glorious Nixie clock. I then proceeded to post about my love for this particular kind of actually-quite-lamented retrotech and all the places it appeared in formative science fiction works of my youth.

Well, I turned 40 last month, and in what I feel is a tribute to the hoary distant years of my birth, the 1970s, my wife proceeded to buy for me... tada, a Nixie clock.

It's a beaut. As I mentioned in my previous Nixie entry, I am mechanically declined, to quote a classic Far Side comic. I was never going to put together a clock of my own that involved molten hot metal. So my wife very gladly obtained me an already-assembled Nixie kit from Ramsay Electronics.

It's definitely got some modern touches, most notably the buried multicolored LED lights that allow you to do cool things like color-code every hour of the day through the spectrum, if you are so inclined (*coff coff*, 6 am is red, 10 am is orange, and so forth). But the really important part of this clock, the Nixie tubes themselves, are authentic and scream indie Soviet cred right down to their wires:

Doesn't seeing that CCCP legend just get you wanting to sing the Soviet national anthem and play some CHEXX? The IN-14 tube seen here on my clock is probably from the late '80s pre-Soviet collapse surplus that has kept modern collectors in clover the past few years of the Nixie clock craze.

This clock is the ultimate party conversation piece. We had a birthday party shortly after I got this thing and we had about a dozen people gathered around staring at it like some kind of dead-tech hearth. People were hypnotized by the stacked cathodes and how the numbers change (the model I have is programmed to cycle through the circuit when going from a 9 to a 0).

At some point in the next few weeks I'm going to post about another great gift I got this summer, very different from the clock but no less a conversation piece, but for now, here is my Nixie clock. There are many like it these days, but this one is mine.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The National Film Board of Canada: L'Homme Qui Voit

I've waxed positively rhapsodic in these pages in the past about my love for the Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada and their spare, haunted-by-childhood tunes. I've also noted the love these two Scottish brothers have for the films of the National Film Board of Canada/Office national du film du Canada (NFB/ONF).

Now, Boards of Canada have integrated references to these educational and art films throughout their musical corpus, and I will admit, I don't have childhood memories of these films (although as I've previously mentioned in these pages, I do have VERY fond memories of TVOntario educational programming). But as I happened to fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole the other day that led from Wikipedia picture of the day Buffalo Bull's Back Fat to the Kainai Nation, I started to have the vaguest I was treading on familiar ground. When I scrolled down the Kainai Nation page and saw a link to Pete Standing Alone, and to the NFB documentary Circle of the Sun, I realized these were all inspirations for some Boards of Canada songs ("Kaini Industries" and "Pete Standing Alone" specifically).

Circle of the Sun tells the story of Pete Standing Alone, a young member of the Kainai (Blood) Nation who is ambivalent about the traditions of his people, all while acknowledging that the old ways were dying out. In fact, the Kainai Nation gave permission for the NFB to record the Sun Dance of the Kainai for the first time in an effort to preserve it.

It's all treated with a remarkable amount of sensitivity for 1960, especially with having Pete Standing Alone narrate and describe his own conflicted feelings. Sure, there's a touch of the Western white anthropologist in director Colin Low's handling of the tribal gathering, but overall it's a striking visual document of a people being subsumed by the modern world.

So then you go and explore the rest of the NFB site and see thousands of films of all types: documentaries, features, art and experimental films. It's really a treasure trove; it's one of those things that makes an American like me wonder what America could be like with a strong, government-supported cultural program, but never mind that line of thinking. Let's talk about the NFB's logo for a minute.

I know, right?

I'd call it vaguely Cronenbergian (it's got that Spectacular Optical-from-Videodrome sort of look to it) but that might be putting the cart before the horse a bit. After all, David Cronenberg's first feature, Stereo, which took place in a fictional "Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry" and shot at the modernist concrete campus of Scarborough College (later part of the University of Toronto), was shot in 1969, the same year that the NFB's "Man Seeing/L'Homme Qui Voit" logo debuted. They both speak of a strange future full of watching, wandering eyes, a McLuhan-gone-sour, government-funded voyeuristic ambulatory panopticon, all legs and eyes. While I can acknowledge the great amount of social good that the NFB did and does, I can't help but try to find the sinister in it. Which might be why the NFB uses a slightly less uncanny version of the eye logo now. But maybe I'm just naturally inclined to seek out sinister late-1960s alternate Canadas.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Our Next Entries: YOU Make The Call!

Given that I'm coming off a rather lengthy hiatus here at Renfusa, I actually do have a wide array of things I've been meaning to write about. So I figured, why not throw open the option to vote on the blog entries I write next?

Some of these are "Five Things I Learned" pieces on books I've read over the past year, others are follow-ups on past entries, and still others are Wikipedia rabbit holes I've fallen down recently. So vote vote vote, and we'll tally everything up on Wednesday of next week and I'll write on the top vote-getting topic, with the second, third, and lower choices showing up in future blog entries.

Here we go, your five options are:

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Return to Renfusa

It's been about a year since we've provided you with new content, but that is about to change.

First, an apologia for our hiatus. Many changes have occurred in my life in the past 12 months, but the most notable has been my abandonment of my prior career in corporate education and my full shift into a career in museums. More about this will be said in the weeks and months to come, including later in this very entry. There is also the matter of a little pop culture/history podcast I have been perpetrating with our esteemed Mercator Lucis that has taken up most of my non-life-change-related discretionary time.

Second, my career in museums comes with a necessary education in museums, which I have been pursuing for the past 18 months or so through the Harvard Extension School. I've applied to the Museum Studies Master's program and should find out about my admission in a month or two. I'm currently in my fourth Museum Studies course, The Role of Museums in History, which is a course I've been eagerly anticipating taking the past year and a half.

I'm writing today because this week we do happen to be covering the museum or its predecessors in the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, and our reading for this evening's session, from The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century Europe, edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor, featured a great quote attributed to Renfusa's spiritual patron Francis Bacon.

In the Gesta Grayorum, essentially a eclectic set of orations, playlets, songs, and fancies performed and recorded over the course of Christmas season revels among law students at Gray's Inn, London, an author believed to be Bacon (who was a lecturer at Gray's Inn) talks about an ideal edifice for the study of philosophy (these scans of a 1914 reprint of the 1688 first publishing of Gesta Grayorum courtesy

Leaving aside how our supposed Bacon seems to be, entirely fittingly in my opinion, playing a solitaire 1590s version of the computer game Civilization here (if you don't believe me, read the next section starting on page 35, titled "The Third Councellor advising Eternizement and Fame, by Buildings and Foundations"*, and its list of important buildings for a civilization to have)... doesn't this look an awful lot like an early draft of the ideal society of Bensalem from The New Atlantis, just on a smaller scale? It's just a hunch of mine, but it shows that Bacon (if this is indeed Bacon, and please, let's not get into what the Gesta Grayorum says about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays) was thinking about these neatly universal demonstrations of human knowledge and scientific research early in his life and career. Pretty good stuff to kick off both my semester and a rebirth of this blog.

* Two notes here: 1) the multiple "councellors" which Bacon embodies here do remind me of Civilization's various pesky Advisors, thus solidifying my tenuous Sid Meier/Francis Bacon conspiracy theory and 2) I endeavor in the next year to use the word "Eternizement" every opportunity I can.