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Sex and Greebles

I’ve signed up to give a keynote talk, at Arse Elektronika, a Viennese-funded avant-garde conference in San Francisco on themes of sex and science-fiction. The talk is still a few weeks off, but they want an abstract from me today, so I’m making up something now, just to post as a start.

“What is Sex?”

Each of us is here as a link in a chain of a zillion reproductive sex acts. The pleasures of partnership and the orgasm help make us obsessed with having sex, even if we don’t know or care about reproduction. We might think of sex as any path that leads to orgasm. Note here the difference between sex with a person and, say, sex via pornography. In sex with a person, you’re talking about emotion, the positions of your limbs, touch across large skin areas, tastes, scents and pheromones. In the “artificial sex” of pornography, you’re talking about visual images, perhaps enhanced by recorded sounds. Amazing how little we’re willing to settle for! How might artificial sex improve? I’ll sketch some science-fictional scenarios.

Bruce Sterling sent me a great link to a Wikipedia article about the word “greeble.” In graphics, a greeble is some essentially meaningless bit of detail added to break up a blank surface and add visual interest.

You can write programs to procedurally decorate any surface with greebles; it’s a process similar to fractalization, that is, you divide up the surface into square are triangles and randomly add a bump or a hollow here and there. If you like, you can do this recursively for several levels, that is, rather than adding a bump or a hollow to a square, you subdivide the square into yet smaller squares and greeble those tiny squares.

In 1993, I wrote a Wired article subtitled “Kit-bashing the Cosmic Matte,” about George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, then in some ratty small buildings in little North Bay town. And one of the things the engineers showed me that when they’d used physical models (rather than digital constructs) for the big spaceships in Star Wars. And they’d pepped up these things by covering the surfaces with bits taken from standard over-the-counter plastic model kits of, like battleships. They called the process “kit-bashing,” but I didn’t hear them say the word “greeble.”

In writing, something analogous is what I’ve always called the “eyeball kick”—I’m actually credited with this use of the phrase by no less an authority than “The Turkey City Lexicon: A Primer for SF Workshops.”

That perfect, telling detail that creates an instant visual image. The ideal of certain postmodern schools of SF is to achieve a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Rudy Rucker)

The phrase was used earlier by superbeat Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1950s:

Ginsberg also made an intense study of haiku and the paintings of Paul Cézanne, from which he adapted a concept important to his work, which he called the “Eyeball Kick”. He noticed in viewing Cézanne’s paintings that when the eye moved from one color to a contrasting color, the eye would spasm, or ‘kick.’

“Eyeball kicks” are also associated with comic art, as in the work of Will Elder in the early Mad magazine—did editor Harvey Kurtzman popularize the phrase? Help me out if you know about this…

A comix store I visited in in Wellington, NZ, two years ago is even called Eyeball Kicks.

In conclusion, we have to ask…would sex even be possible without greebles?

11 Responses to “Sex and Greebles”

  1. Gamma Says:

    hey about the sf sex aspect – that story by Barry Bayley “Cling to the Curvature” is very interesting – i must admit that i have never read any work by John Norman – sold a lot of the paperbackz – i think it is about a week now till they start up the Bubble Machine at CERN – so it goes

  2. Kelson Says:

    Beyond a pavlovian kind of response? I don’t think it would be.

  3. Kelson Says:

    There could be greebles for the other senses as well, yes?

  4. Rudy Says:

    Kelson, good idea! Sound greebles are what make live drums more interesting than a looped drum track. Taste greebles are why we use spices. Touch greebles are what makes it nice to touch certain things like skin or stone, and why plastic feels so UUgh. Smell greebles are what makes the outdoors smell nicer than the inside of a sterile lecture hall. Intersting motions have greebled elements of little bumps or non-linearities.

    I see a connection between greebles and gnarl, too…

  5. Kelson Says:

    I just got chills at the thought of a bridge between the two. I’m sure it wasn’t just the AC kickin’ on, either. Pushing inward, deeper into gnarl-ville, would you have a fractalization of greebles? That was the direction-sense I was getting from your post. And if each of those little gnarly greebles originated with a simple, autonomous program (microdots of CAPOW, perhaps?)…goodness, that feels electric.

  6. nick Says:

    I believe that’s Ars Electronica not Arse Electronika. you hentai guy!

  7. Steve H Says:

    Certainly there’s a connection; natural stuff has natural greebles. The random casualness of scattered pebbles on a beach tells our eyes that this is real and not a movie set. If you paint a picture of this beach, or reproduce it using ray-tracing software like Bryce, you will work hard to reproduce that randomness well enough to be convincing.
    Sex without greebles? Hmm. Depends upon whether or not Lara Croft is your idea of a hot date. Idealized women are often depicted sans greebles, smooth and shiny as plastic dolls, piping hot and airbrushed to a golden tan. Always seemed creepy to me.
    Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed one of his prayerful poems to Pied Beauty:

    GLORY be to God for dappled things—
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.
    I wouldn’t go THAT far, but it’s nice to have textures in things, and it fits with your discussion of the Singularity. Intelligence has gnarls and greebles instead of being a smooth flow. E=MC, um, did I leave the frying pan on? Naah. MC squared, that’s it.

  8. Bruce Sterling Says:

    Greebles are where it’s at, dude.

    I’d suggest properly respelling that august event as “Ars Electronica” before the
    city fathers in Hitler’s birthplace have a fit…

  9. Rudy Says:

    No this event where I’m speaking really IS called “Arse Elelectronika.” As I understand it, the name is a kind of pun on the more proper one that you refer to.

  10. MarcL Says:

    Yes, I had to check the website when Rudy first posted this, but it all makes sense.

  11. Steve H Says:

    Arse Longa, Vita Brevis Est?

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