Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kiddo Viddos





Sorry about the heavy breathing sounds - I wasn't thinking about how close to my face the microphone was.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

MMMMmmm soda

I could be this guy's best friend. (ups: Rob)




I wish I'd known about that place when I lived in LA.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Fall

A few years ago, I saw this trailer, and knew I wanted to see this movie. Then I promptly forgot all about it.



Tonight M and I watched "The Fall". I also remember thinking no movie could possibly deliver what that trailer seems to promise. But it did. It was beautiful, both visually and emotionally. I will be buying a copy of the film in Glorious Blu-Ray for my own collection.

It's also the best depiction in film I've yet seen of the kind of emotional collaborative storytelling I've experienced in the best roleplaying games.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nothing would surprise me with this kid.

So, this morning during church, my son E, who is 4, had me convinced he could full-on read (possibly in Spanish). Now, I know that he cannot - he's in Reception (which is like Kindergarten but it starts with 4-year-olds here) and he's learning some phonics and can sound out simple words like 'car', 'into', and 'the'. All of which is well and good - in fact, I think he's proceeding quite well and am immensely proud in a proper, dignified, fatherly way.

He was looking through my Bible, as he often does to keep occupied during church, because he knows that his name can be found on a page in Genesis, and because I have scattered throughout it some transparent Jesus stickers that someone gave me and that I put in there during my mission. Also, my Bible is nonstandard - it is a dual-language version with Spanish in the left column and the corresponding English in the right. It is a standard Born-Again Bible in other respects - minimal index, but pages on how to be saved by accepting Jesus, Christ's words in red, etc. Anyway, it's my Bible and its the one I read cover to cover as a missionary and it has all my notes and markings in it. Here's the page E was looking at:

So after he looks at it for a minute, he turns to me and says "He didn't say anything."

Me: "Wait, what?"

E: "Jesus. He didn't say anything"

Me (internal monologue):WHOA! That's verse 7 right there! Not only can he read silently, this kid is reading and paraphrasing what he's reading!

Me (aloud): Uhhhh, how do you know that?


Any guesses? I'll post the answer in comments tomorrow.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Subterranean Design


I have, perhaps foolishly, embarked on a new blogging venture I won't have time to nurture properly:

Subterranean Design, a blog about the intersection of art, underground, fantasy, ecology, and architecture. Or something like that.

Anyway, I'm thinking it'll be a multi-person effort, so if that sounds like the sort of thing you might be interested in, drop me a line (dave dot younce @ gmail dot com) and I'll make you a contributor.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Post-Apocalyptic Fashion: Pets Edition

Inasmuch as Google Analytics continues to show that my original Post-Apocalyptic Fashion post continues to be one of the biggest draws for searchers to find on this blog, I thought maybe I'd do a followup. This time with pets!

Having a tough pet with you in a post-apocalyptic world is a good idea for a number of reasons: it can scare away potential harmdoers, sniff out hidden sources of food or hunt for both of you, and it makes you look more badass, which, let's face it, is the very soul of post-apocalyptic fashion. Plus, if these were action figures, you know you'd want the ones with pets because its like getting an extra figure (which is why Croc Master was an awesome GI Joe figure even though, realistically, he's useless in battle).



Concept: Tough Girl with Tiger (Sienna Miller)
Outfit Basics: Knee high boots, knee-length knit dress, partial shirt
Outfit Utility: Well, I suppose the high boots are good for avoiding rattlesnake bites and briars, and allowing her to traverse areas of mud or ecological waste. I'm thinking that the knitwear dress isn't all that practical, as it will get dirty easily and doesn't provide much warmth for weight. Plus, not much in the way of waterproofing. Still, it breathes well, and will provide some cover from the desert sun. And it's a versatile enough garment to curl up into at night or to avoid the worst of a sandstorm. I give it a 4/10 for utility but a 7/10 for fashion.
Pet Choice: Siberian Tiger. Definitely high on the intimidation scale, but only moderate on the utility. Tigers eat a lot of meat, and midway across the desert she's going to start looking pretty appetizing to it. On the other hand, it can hunt independently and (imagining a true woman-beast bond) could probably do most of the food-acquisition for both of them assuming there was prey to be had.
9/10 intimidation
6/10 useful
3/10 practical
9/10 fashion


Concept: Classic Road Warrior with Canine
Outfit Basics: All leather, all black, all tough.
Outfit Utility: Protection from road rash or simple hazards is high, but it isn't very breathable and will likely lead to heatstroke or worse. Shotgun is a useful deterrent but only at short range. Crescent wrench and other tools likely to come in handy. Utility 7/10; Fashion 8/10
Pet Choice: Mutt. Small size means its easy to feed and it can scout in ruins and other places where its difficult for a man to go. It can eat a variety of foods but can't do much providing for its master. However, it can (potentially) aid in tracking prey or locating useful commodities like drugs or explosives.
2/10 intimidation
7/10 useful
8/10 practical
2/10 fashion


Concept: Somalian Warlord with Hyena
Outfit Basics: T-shirt, ragged africanesque skirt, repurposed anklets, sandals
Outfit Utility: Provides some protection from the elements, but little lower leg or foot protection means scrambling through junkyards or briars, but he will do better over fine sandy areas than the boot-wearers.
Pet Choice: Hyena. An excellent scavenger and also quite intimidating. Good sense of smell, moderate hunting ability, good camouflage, but mostly just cool-looking. Which is what we're after, isn't it?
8/10 intimidation
7/10 useful
6/10 practical
9/10 fashion

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Race The Devil

Via Mind Hacks:

"An extraordinary 2006 article from The New York Times profiles ultra-endurance cyclist Jure Robič who apparently regularly loses his sanity during his races - literally becoming psychotic as he pushes himself to the limit.

The craziness is methodical, however, and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback...

In a consideration of Robic, three facts are clear: he is nearly indefatigable, he is occasionally nuts, and the first two facts are somehow connected. The question is, How? Does he lose sanity because he pushes himself too far, or does he push himself too far because he loses sanity? Robic is the latest and perhaps most intriguing embodiment of the old questions: What happens when the human body is pushed to the limits of its endurance? Where does the breaking point lie? And what happens when you cross the line?

It's a wonderfully written article that touches on the man himself, the physiology of fatigue and the psychological strain of intense athletic feats."


In a gearpunk/Cthulhu fiction version of this, you'd have a feedback loop where he pedals himself to an insane state that gives him additional endurance to pedal himself beyond the nightmare Rasputin Cavalry and physically into Hell itself, where as long as he pedals fast enough, nothing can catch him. It can be a version of the Eurydice/Orpheus story, where Robic is the only one able to pass beyond the nightmares and retrieve his (or someone's) true love from hell, as long as he never stops to regain his breath or look to closely at the asphalt-crack messages that spell out forbidden eldritch knowledge that would keep him from ever being sane again. Of course, you'd have to keep the ending of the original, so let's just say there won't be a sequel.

A blending of men and beasts


Gorgeous Jungle Book Illos (For Katy)


It's Half-Human freak-week over at the Hope Chest: Alligator Children, Half-Coon child, Half-frog boy, and hopefully more to come! If they can manage a post about both half-human freaks AND mince pie, they will reach transendence!

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Social Surplus

Friend Kerry was kind enough to suggest that I offer some thoughts on the following piece (included here in its entirety, so you have to read it or consciously skip past it to get at my meager insights).

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus - Here Comes Everybody: "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus
By
Clay Shirky

(This is a lightly edited transcription of a speech Mr. Shirky gave at the Web 2.0 conference, April 23, 2008.)


I was recently reminded of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing-- there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn't until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders--a lot of things we like--didn't happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn't until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society.


If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would've come off the whole enterprise, I'd say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.


And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.


We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.


And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.


This hit me in a conversation I had about two months ago. As Jen said in the introduction, I've finished a book called Here Comes Everybody, which has recently come out, and this recognition came out of a conversation I had about the book. I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, 'What are you seeing out there that's interesting?'

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus--'How should we characterize this change in Pluto's status?' And a little bit at a time they move the article--fighting offstage all the while--from, 'Pluto is the ninth planet,' to 'Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.'


So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, 'Okay, we're going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.' That wasn't her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, 'Where do people find the time?' That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, 'No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years.'


So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.


And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, 'Where do they find the time?' when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.


Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.


The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. The physics of participation is much more like the physics of weather than it is like the physics of gravity. We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there's an interesting community over here, there's an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can't predict the outputs yet because there's so much complexity.


The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails fails informatively so that you can at least find a skull on a pikestaff near where you're going. That's the phase we're in now.


Just to pick one example, one I'm in love with, but it's tiny. A couple of weeks one of my students at ITP forwarded me a a project started by a professor in Brazil, in Fortaleza, named Vasco Furtado. It's a Wiki Map for crime in Brazil. If there's an assault, if there's a burglary, if there's a mugging, a robbery, a rape, a murder, you can go and put a push-pin on a Google Map, and you can characterize the assault, and you start to see a map of where these crimes are occurring.


Now, this already exists as tacit information. Anybody who knows a town has some sense of, 'Don't go there. That street corner is dangerous. Don't go in this neighborhood. Be careful there after dark.' But it's something society knows without society really knowing it, which is to say there's no public source where you can take advantage of it. And the cops, if they have that information, they're certainly not sharing. In fact, one of the things Furtado says in starting the Wiki crime map was, 'This information may or may not exist some place in society, but it's actually easier for me to try to rebuild it from scratch than to try and get it from the authorities who might have it now.'


Maybe this will succeed or maybe it will fail. The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don't pan out. But the ones that do are quite incredible, and I hope that this one succeeds, obviously. But even if it doesn't, it's illustrated the point already, which is that someone working alone, with really cheap tools, has a reasonable hope of carving out enough of the cognitive surplus, enough of the desire to participate, enough of the collective goodwill of the citizens, to create a resource you couldn't have imagined existing even five years ago.


So that's the answer to the question, 'Where do they find the time?' Or, rather, that's the numerical answer. But beneath that question was another thought, this one not a question but an observation. In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: 'Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.'


At least they're doing something.


Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it's not, and that's the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.


And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, 'If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.' And that's message--I can do that, too--is a big change.


This is something that people in the media world don't understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race--consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you'll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.


And what's astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they're discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they'll take you up on that offer. It doesn't mean that we'll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we'll do it less.


And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we're talking about. It's so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let's say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That's about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.


I think that's going to be a big deal. Don't you?


Well, the TV producer did not think this was going to be a big deal; she was not digging this line of thought. And her final question to me was essentially, 'Isn't this all just a fad?' You know, sort of the flagpole-sitting of the early early 21st century? It's fun to go out and produce and share a little bit, but then people are going to eventually realize, 'This isn't as good as doing what I was doing before,' and settle down. And I made a spirited argument that no, this wasn't the case, that this was in fact a big one-time shift, more analogous to the industrial revolution than to flagpole-sitting.


I was arguing that this isn't the sort of thing society grows out of. It's the sort of thing that society grows into. But I'm not sure she believed me, in part because she didn't want to believe me, but also in part because I didn't have the right story yet. And now I do.


I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, 'What you doing?' And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, 'Looking for the mouse.'


Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for. Those are things that make me believe that this is a one-way change. Because four year olds, the people who are soaking most deeply in the current environment, who won't have to go through the trauma that I have to go through of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan's Island, they just assume that media includes consuming, producing and sharing.


It's also become my motto, when people ask me what we're doing--and when I say 'we' I mean the larger society trying to figure out how to deploy this cognitive surplus, but I also mean we, especially, the people in this room, the people who are working hammer and tongs at figuring out the next good idea. From now on, that's what I'm going to tell them: We're looking for the mouse. We're going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, 'If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?' And I'm betting the answer is yes.


Thank you very much."


First off, I know this isn't the first time I've read this, but this is definitely one of those pieces that I'm liable to feel ought to be reread periodically. I don't know whether he's right on all accounts, but I can see the comparison he's making between gin and sitcoms, and I can hope he's right about the shift in the use of social surplus.

It's been less than 18 months since the speech was given, and already it seems outdated. What about all the effort people put into YouTube (which is _directly_ a television producing/sharing effort)? What about all the time 300 million people spend on FaceBook? 300 Million! That's 5% of world population. How long ago was it that 5% of world households had a TV?

Then, look at the shift in how the internet is being accessed. It was once the purview of a very few with expensive desktop computers. Then it was a whole lot of people with desktops and some laptops. Now it's tilting towards majority of users with mobile devices and a bunch of laptops. The trend is towards huge percentages of the world population accessing the internet primarily through mobile phones and other devices that they will carry with them all the time. Which means any downtime they get, if they are within range of infrastructure, they can be interacting with the internet. Often, this will mean consuming content. Increasingly, it will mean creating it. This is part of Twitter's big appeal - it can be done quickly, from a mobile device.

So I think there's little reason to doubt Mr. Shirky's trend analysis. And many reasons to stop drinking from the boob-tube's gin and do something constructive (some of the time). I won't begrudge you some television (granted there's SOME genuine value to it - a discussion for another time), but I think everyone benefits from content creation. Even if nobody reads your content.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Network Without Me

Nexus has a certain Gibsonesque appeal to it:
My Network without me: Nexus

In Touchgraph I can drag some of the Singletons over towards networks I associate them with:
My Network without me: Touchgraph

Generally speaking, people cluster about how I'd expect, neatly into the subgroups I'd put them in mentally. All the Story Games people together, all the Blackbird people, all the people at the various churches I've attended, and links mainly where a person is known to associate with more than one group (which is why of course Michelle is the biggest hub on both graphs). But these graphs raise a few questions, too. How does Matt C know Steven B? How does Angie B know Amy F? No doubt there are other links unknown to me I haven't noticed on the graph.

Pruned: Yellow Fog


Pruned: Yellow Fog: "Yellow Fog
Olafur Eliasson
(Less sinister, at least we think so, than Artigas' vapor is Olafur Eliasson's Yellow Fog. In this permanent installation, fog rises up the sides of the Sammlung Verbund in the center of Vienna, Austria, shrouding it from street level to the roof. Fluorescent tubes embedded in the pavement emit a yellow light, which illuminates and substantiates something that's barely visible. Obviously related: Diller + Scofidio's Blur Building. Photo by Rupert Steiner.)


I think a lot more could be done with installations like this - displaying information using lasers in the fog; making the lights into LEDs that change to indicate things, and so forth. The world needs more glowing fog.

Consolidation

So, at present, I produce content in the following places:

  • On this here blog. I like it when people comment, but few of you do, probably because I post so seldom that anyone who isn't using Google Reader or another feed aggregator probably stopped checking long ago or stops by very occasionally.

  • My google reader shared items, which is probably my most prolific place at present. I do like the way the "Comment View" acts as a vibrant area for me and a few close friends to comment on what the others are posting, and since its where I do 95% of my internet reading, its a good place for me to be publishing. But those who don't use Google Reader are blind to this content. Although that's not really true - Facebook picks up the links themselves, but not whatever commentary I may have made on them. This is a very easy way for me to create content, using the 'Note in Reader' button, and it would be hard to give up that ease of sharing.

  • Facebook statuses, and, occasionally, notes. Facebook is extremely good at what it does, and therefore this is probably where my content has the largest audience of people whose opinions I might care about. Blog posts (like this one) get auto-reposted there as notes at present. As noted above, FB also picks up my GR shared items, but only forwards people to the content, not the commentary.

  • twitter. Most of my tweets are actually just repostings of my google shared items, blog posts, and last.fm listens channeled through bit.ly and twitterfeed. And sometimes I copy over a facebook status. Very little original content happens there, but it is one flawed version of an aggregation of these sources.


Which seems a bit much for someone who produces as little content as I do. Likewise, if I want to interact with friends and others, there are at least 4 places I have to go to read that content (not really; it all goes to Google Reader, but to respond I have to track conversations in multiple places). Google Wave may address some of this, but it seems like it'll benefit other Wave users exclusively.

Some of you will remember a time when this space was my only content publishing platform, and I actually devoted time to it. We had fun together on the Plane of Knowledge and I liked that it was a place where people I appreciate would gather and discuss things.

With that in mind, I think I'd like to try a little experiment. For a week, I'm going to try to create content (almost) exclusively on this blog. I'll still comment on others' shared items in Google reader, and will still post the occasional Facebook status, but I'm going to try to put items I normally would share in GR onto the blog instead, and my thoughts with them. Twitter and FB will still mirror/link to these posts, so I may not truly be consolidating the conversation. Anyway, its something I want to try. So watch this space.


PS: Happy birthday to me.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On Augmented Reality

In 1994 I discovered cyberpunk. I first read Neuromancer, then everything else I could get my hands on by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and their contemporaries. Virtual Light was but a shadow of the book that Neuromancer was, but my teenage mind still soaked it up. What I remember most about the book is the technologically advanced sunglasses that the plot revolves around. Among other things, they have the property that when you look through them, information is displayed about the things you're looking at. Whose car is that? What brand of shoes are those? Who is that man?

At the time this was firmly science fiction. Now, the beginnings of that capability are being introduced on mobile phones. The current leading example is Layar (see also here), which provides the capability to overlay data sets realtime onto the phone's screen based on what is seen by its camera. This has been termed 'Augmented Reality' because it brings features of our now well-known virtual realities back into the physical one. A good overview article from the Economist is already familiar to those who subscribe to my Google Reader shared items.

So what's it good for? Here's a short list of ways AR might change a few things:
  1. See it, Shop it: Like those shoes the lady in front of you is wearing? Not only might your phone tell you what they are, it can tell you where the best price or nearest location is to buy them, and it can draw an AR pheremone trail only you can see to show you how to get there.

  2. AR Gaming. This is a broad one, so heres a few examples: Take a look at this blend of tabletop wargame, video game, and virtual world:
    Now imagine taking that to the streets of your city, in multiplayer, with teams, AR destruction drawn on buildings, the works. At that point it becomes Alternate Reality.

  3. Likewise imagine the ways that virtual communities or games can spill over into AR, and vice versa. World of Warcraft players with a particular layar on could look into their phones and see other WoW players replaced in the video with their game avatars, who move like the person, and functions of the game that once happened only in-game in-basement could now happen on the streets, at gaming conventions, or in your local Starbucks.

  4. For an excellent example of how AR might make life difficult for celebrities who value privacy and easy for stalkers who don't, refer to the recent video of a Dutch camera crew using Layar to find Brad Pitt's home in Amsterdam. On the other hand, there will emerge AR celebrities in the same way that when webcams first became affordable there were webcam celebrities. Which leads us to:

  5. Of course, this being the internet, there will be porn. It may be as simple as applications that take in video of girls walking on the street and output a virtually generated declothed version (which is sure to spark an interesting privacy debate), or it may allow for imaginary 'companions' only you can see through your own phone, like Baltar and Number Six on Battlestar Galactica. Who knows? But be sure of it, the adult entertainment industry will stay on the leading edge (because there's money to be made).

  6. Then theres the many commercial applications: How much is that house appraised for? Where's the nearest restaurant or movie theatre? This is old-hat, location-aware stuff that the iPhone is already doing, but it will be viewed through the lens of the mobile device itself.

  7. Virtual geocaching.

  8. Mix with facial recognition software and web-photo tag-mining and figuring out how to approach that cute girl at the end of the bar (or, swindle her out of her money) becomes easier.



Doubtless, there are loads of other ways in which AR might or might not be a game-changer. What do you imagine?

Extra Sources:
* Bruce Sterling's AR blog posts at Wired
*AR Sci-fi reading list

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Crabapple-Lime Jelly!


Ingredients:

A whole bunch of crabapples, with maybe some quinces, hard pears, or normal apples thrown in; at least 4 lbs (but as much as 9)
lemons or limes (1 per 4 lb of crabapples)
sugar!

Hardware:
Big pot
jelly bag or fine mesh strainer over large bowl
jars


Instructions:
Wash the fruit, cut crabapples into quarters, removing any big blemishes and some of the seeds and stems. Cut any other fruit you're using into pieces the same size as your crabapple bits. Throw it all in the pot. Add cold water until the fruit is just covered.

Bring to a boil and simmer until it's all mush (several hours), stirring occasionally and (towards the end) smearing anything that hasn't turned to mush, like pears, against the sides of the pot with your spoon. Pour into your jelly bag or fine strainer suspended above a bowl (ideally a big bowl with measuring marks). Leave for several hours to overnight, until it basically stops dripping.

Start your jars sterilizing. Preheat the oven to 375. Wash your jars and lids in hot soapy water, then rinse in hot water. Don't dry them, but put them on a baking sheet. Once your jelly is boiling in the next step, put the jars in the oven and leave there for at least 10 minutes.

Pour your juice into another big pot, measuring as you do. For every pint of liquid, add 1 lb. granulated sugar. For every 2 pints, add the rind and juice of one lemon or lime. Bring to a boil slowly, stirring well as you do to dissolve the sugar, then boil as rapidly as you can without it rising up and overboiling. Skim off any foam that forms (it looks different than just the boiling liquid). When it has started to thicken (at least 10-20 minutes of good boiling), test it for setting. Put a plate into the fridge for a few minutes, then spoon a little jelly onto the plate. If it wrinkles when pushed with your finger, you're there.

Take the jelly off heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Take your jars out of the oven if you haven't already. Either remove your citrus peel from the jelly or put a little piece of rind in each jar as decoration. Pour the jelly into the jars. Cover with a waxed paper disc, and seal the lids while still hot. Allow to cool for 12-24 hours before labelling and storing in a cool dark place. Good on toast, pork loin, and all sorts of things!

Adapted from "A Year of Family Recipes", by Lesley Wild

Friday, September 18, 2009

Loot of the day

Here're the lots I won at our local auction (by proxy, I went and looked last night and then called in my bids this morning:


Old photos, the one on the left of some Victorians on camels in front of the Pyramids



A pair of nice oak serving trays



A nice looking set of weights for my desktop/alchemy lab area



A peridot ring I bid on sight unseen for my daughter whose birthstone is apparently peridot and who will lovingly cherish and eventually lose it.



Space heaters for the possibly drafty nursery or wherever else we want them this winter.


And then I also got the following off eBay - I had seen this set of interchangeable tile-playmats at E's kindergarten classroom and looked around for them online.


I bought two sets for more road possibilities.

All considered I was quite proud of today's acquisitions!

New Slang Cover

Remember Friend Davey? He doesn't blog much anymore (for that matter, neither do I), but occasionally he sends nuggets my way. Here is one such:

Do you know the Shins song New Slang? Sure you do, it's in Garden State.

Do you like it? Hell, even if you don't you should totally check out this cover.

There, didn't that make your day?




Loved it! Thanks, Davey.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Where are the green mammals?

I was thinking about this a few months back and never figured it out. There are green reptiles, green fish, green birds, green insects, but I don't know of any species of mammal that naturally has any green pigment to its skin or fur. I'm not counting species that have algae living in their hair or something like that, I'm talking about actual green pigment being produced by mammals. For that matter, there's not much in the way of blue or purple for mammals, is there? A prize to anyone who can explain why that might be to my satisfaction.

I was reminded of this by the fact that Katy posted a very blue spider.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

America's Place in the World, by Stephen Fry

In place of the usual 4th-of-July well-wishing, I thought I'd share an interesting piece on American Culture from an entirely British point of view. I don't agree with all of what's said, or rather, I hope Mr Fry is wrong on several of his conclusions. It's long, but worth reading. Original can be found here. Now HERE is a man who can WRITE:

"The Spectator Lecture, Royal Geographical Society, presented in London 30th April 2009

Here we are. Gathered together in the very lecture theatre where Henry Morton Stanley once told an enraptured world of his momentous meeting with Dr. Livingstone. Charles Darwin was a member and gave talks in this same hall. Sir Richard Burton lectured here and John Hanning Speke … spoke. Shackleton and Hillary displayed their intimate frostbite scars to a spellbound RGS audience. Explorers, adventurers and navigators have been coming here for the best part of 180 years to tell of their discoveries. If only at school, geography teachers, surely the most scoffed and pilloried class of pedagogue there is, if only they had concentrated less on rift valleys, trig points and the major exports of Indonesia and more on the fact that Geography could promise a classy royal society with the sexiest lecture theatre in the land – if only they had done that, then maybe cheap stand-up comedians and lazy cultural commentators would be less routinely scornful of geography teachers as a class and geography itself as a discipline, which is one I rather unfashionably enjoyed when I was young. Don’t ask me why. Actually, now that I think of it, one reason for me to be fond of the subject was the circumstance that in my prep school geography room there were piles and piles of shiny yellow National Geographic Magazines available for skimming through. These, with their glossy advertisements for Chesterfield cigarettes, Cadillac sedans and Dimple whisky, gave me my first view outside television of what America might be like. But there was another reason religiously to scan the magazines…

National Geographic, before it became a ‘brand’ best known for an imbecilic and embarrassing suite of digital TV channels, was – thanks to its anthropological coverage in a pre-internet, pre-channel 4, pre-top shelf age – the only place where a curious boy could look at full colour pictures of naked people. For that alone it deserves the thanks of generations. One did get the false impression that many peoples of the world had protuberances shaped exactly like a gourd, but never mind.

National Geographic made films too, and at my school these would be run through an old Bell and Howell projector by the geography masters to keep us quiet and to give them time to beetle off and pursue their amorous liaisons with matron or the whisky bottle, depending on which teacher it was. ‘Fry, you’re in charge,’ they would never say on their way out. But what strange films they left us to watch. I seem to recall that the subjects were usually logging in Oregon, the life cycle of the beaver or the excitements to be found in the National Parks of Montana and Wyoming. Very blue skies, lots of spruce, larch and pine and plenty of plaid shirtings. The unreliable speed of that hot and dusty old Bell and Howell rendered the soundtrack and its music flat then sharp then flat again in rolling waves of discord, but it was the commentators that gave me raptures with their magisterially rich and rolling American rhetoric. What a peculiar way with language they had, employing poetical tricks that had been out of date a hundred years earlier. My favourite was the ‘be-’ game. If a word usually began with the prefix ‘be-‘ it was taken off . Thus ‘beneath’ became ‘neath’ and so on. But the ‘be’ of ‘beneath’ wasn’t simply thrown away. No no. It was recycled by adding it to words it had no business being anywhere near. Which would result in preposterous declamatory orotundities of this nature: “Neath the bedappled verdure of the mighty sequoia, sinks the bewestering sun,” and so forth. And what is the proper name for this rhetorical trope, also much deployed? It would start with the usual ‘be-‘ nonsense: “Neath becoppered skies bewends …” but then this “the silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River.” The weird and senseless maze of metonym and metaphor that was National Geographic Speak in all its besplendour was a great influence on me, for where others had rock and roll music, I had language.

This is all a way of saying how pleased I am to be delivering this talk, this first ever Speccie Leccie, here in the temple, the palace, the very headquarters of geography. But it’s no good skirting the issue. This is not only an honour, it is also a great surprise. Not only to me, I would venture to suggest, but to the preponderance of Spectator readers around the land too. In fact not so much a surprise, more a deeply unpleasant shock. Acquit me of false modesty when I state that I take it as certain that when Mr. D’Ancona, the Spectator’s sappy young editor, announced to his readers (and I dare say to his staff) that he had chosen me to deliver the inaugural lecture there were many horrified screeches of startled disbelief and agonized howls of apoplectic protest. Surely persons such as I are exactly what the Spectator holds itself foursquare against? Am I not just about the Platonic form, paradigm and pattern card of everything the magazine was put on this earth to dispraise, damn and destroy? I am a crew member of that ship of fools, the sneering liberal elite, a cheerleader of the chattering classes, a loathsome Labour luvvie, a champagne socialist a – goddammit – a celebrity, a twittering celebrity dripping with the sickening syrup of popular culture, political correctness and nauseating kneejerk liberalism that is the leading symptom if not the primary cause of our national decay. It is as if all nature conspired to make a living suppurating mass, a walking purulent bolus compounded of all the poison and pus that oozes and weeps from the sores of today’s Britain and gave it legs, life and a name. Stephen Fry. Lo. Gaze upon him. Know your enemy. And it is he, he of all people, who has been chosen to give the inaugural Spectator Lecture. Eheu fugaces: o tempora o mores. Ichabod. The glory is departed.

I exaggerate, the kinder of you may say. But I repeat, without rancour if not entirely without rue, that I know this to be the case, because I know my country. I know the tribes of Britain. I have seen fifty summers, and during the course of my life I have long been fascinated this side obsession by the caste, class and clans of my people. We may not wear physical gourds on our intimate persons, but we certainly wear notional ones, and our war dances, face paints, initiation rituals, fetishes, tattoos, taboos and blood feuds are no less fascinating to the anthropologist than those of the tribespeople of Papua New Guinea.

But as Kipling wrote and Billy Bragg repeated, what do they of England know that only England know? My travels in the last year or so have taken me to Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, Madagascar, Uganda, Kenya, New Zealand, Indonesia and, more importantly for this occasion, to every one of the 50 states of the USA. I was in America for the run up to the presidential election, but for the ballot itself I was in Kenya, the homeland of course of Barack Obama’s father. I asked a Kenyan with whom we were working whether he was pleased that America looked to be about to have its first black president, and one of Kenyan extraction at that? ‘Very pleased,’ he replied. ‘But you must remember Mr. Obama’s mother is of European extraction. If Barack Obama had stayed here and been elected as our leader, he could have become Kenya’s first white president.’

My love affair with America began – began where? Perhaps with the berolling bevalleys of betwattled absurdity that were the National Geographic films, perhaps with the lifestyle advertisements in those National Geographic magazines, perhaps with Wagon Train, Rawhide and The Lone Ranger or with Bewitched, Dick van Dyke and Lucille Ball on television. Not, with rock and roll I’m afraid. Elvis never did much for me, apostasy as I’m sure it is to confess. Nor did Blues or Jazz or R&B at that time. Certainly not Steve McQueen. I have always disliked cool. For me it is simply another word for cold. But Spenser Tracey, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn – they certainly helped me fall in love with America. Although to be honest gangsters, cowboys, dancers and movie stars weren’t, as they were for so many, the real pull. A major influence on me was P. G. Wodehouse. He adored America and ended his life a proud US citizen. He first went in Edwardian days when, as he later recalled, you could simply pop into a shipping line office in Cockspur Street, buy a ticket and be on the boat train to Southampton in an instant. No nonsense about passports and visas. Everything Wodehouse wrote about the energy, vivacity, warmth, welcome and excitement of America thrilled me and I vowed to go there myself as soon as I could. I little thought that one day I would have a Manhattan apartment of my own, a green card and even be made a Kentucky Colonel. It’s true. One doesn’t like to boast, but Steve Beshear, the Governor of the State – actually the Commonwealth of Kentucky – bestowed that rank upon me, uniquely in the gift of Kentucky, last year. Unlike Harland Sanders of Fried Chicken fame, who was accorded the same title, I don’t use it. But if you choose to call me Colonel Fry I shall certainly answer and with pride. But all this lay ahead of me in a future I could not possibly imagine.

I had American family too. Those from my mother’s side who survived the horrors of the holocaust went to Israel or America or both. All that is, except for my mother’s parents who chose to make their home here in England. American relations would descend into our drab early 60s British world of grey weather, grey trousers and grey attitudes dripping colourful slacks, pants and jackets, sparkling jewels, thrilling cameras, perfumed furs and expensive tchotchkes of all kinds. They brought these treasures to us in Pan-Am or TWA overnight bags or ‘grips’ that also contained thrilling trophies of their jet travel: miniature salt cellars and pepper pots, paper napkins bearing the airline’s crest and foil sachets that held moist lemon-scented cleansing squares, or ‘handy freshen-up wipettes’ of unimaginably exotic strangeness and wonder. Over these precious souvenirs my brother and I would fight like wild beasts. Back home in the states, as my Yankee cousins made clear by their astonishment at our conspicuous lack of them, they had ice machines, air conditioning, stereo sets and colour televisions. Damn it, in Britain even our TV was grey. In my eyes my American cousins were little short of gods: their basketball sneakers shamed my plimsolls, their t-shirts laughed at my short-sleeved air-tex and their Levi jeans made a blushing disgrace of my bagged corduroys. The details of suburban American living I think excited me more than the mythology of the West or of Chicago’s South Side or of the surfers of Santa Monica. I liked trying to understand what bake-offs, yard sales, drive-in movies and spelling bees were, what sophomores and semesters might be and what homecoming queens and commencement and proms and Spring Break and Elks and Shriners and pledge rings and trick or treat could possibly portend.

All this obsession might well have derived from the fact that I was so very nearly born an American myself. In the mid 1950s my father, a physicist fresh from Imperial College, was offered a job at Princeton University – something to do with the emerging science of semiconductors. One of the reasons he turned it down was that he didn’t think he liked the idea of his children growing up as Americans. This sprang not from a dislike of America so much as a disinclination, I must suppose, from having “Gee dad” directed at him over breakfast. Breakfast which would have been constituted of grahams or granola or creamed wheat or even hominy grits – the eggs would have been sunny side up or over easy and maple syrup would have been poured over Canadian bacon and link sausages: there would have been cream cheese. Not cream cheese, but cream cheese, that’s how they said it in America. There would have been stacks too of buckwheat buttermilk pancakes, waffles, bagels and blueberry muffins. There would have been fresh orange juice and Hershey’s chocolate milk and … but, no it was not to be. Thanks to my father’s decision I was born no t in America, but in England and my parents would be forever Papa and Mama or Father and Mother but never Dad and Mom and it was Force Wheat Flakes, Scott’s Porage Oats, boiled eggs and soldiers for brekker and the orange juice was prepared from frozen concentrate, just as our emotions, it seemed to me, also derived from frozen concentrate.

I was only told years later, when I was 10, about this opportunity my father had had to go to Princeton. This startling intelligence had quite an effect on me. I have written in the introduction to the book you lucky, lucky people have been presented with by the all-benevolent Spectator, I have written that the idea of having come so close to being American caused me to imagine a whole other self, the American I would have, should have become, a personage I dubbed Steve. I accorded Steve with almost magical powers and wealth. He could drive by the time he was 16, he wore Converse sneakers and Wrangler jeans, he ate hamburgers, whatever they were and drank cream sodas whatever they were from a bendy straw – even bendy straws were exotic in my country childhood. Only one place in Norwich had them. I grew up in a large house with gardeners, staff, a fireplace in every room and people to lay and light them, yet I felt like the most deprived child in the world compared to Steve. Steve was confident and happy and strong and secure in exactly the way that I was unconfident, unhappy, weak and insecure. He spoke in a sweet, lazy and sexy drawl. He was better looking, better nourished and better liked than I was. I longed to be him. He was American. I had fallen in love with America and could not wait to get there.

Of course falling in love with America almost always suggests falling in love with the idea of America, a phrase that makes little sense if you substitute the word ‘Britain’ for ‘America’ and suggest ‘the idea of Britain’. Britain does not present itself to the world or to its own citizens as an idea, an ongoing project, a work in progress in the way that America still so emphatically does. And I would not want you to think that my love of America meant contempt or estrangement from Britain. No one, I think, could accuse me of adopted American mannerisms, or being somehow unEnglish. Indeed if I had a gold sovereign for every time I have been told that I am ‘quintessentially English’ I would have enough gold sovereigns to stuff in a sock and knock the next person who told me that into violent unconsciousness…

For what is quintessential Englishness? Warm beer and the vicar on his bike on the way to a cricket match? Saturday night drinking and vomiting is surely more representative? Jade and Di worship? Club 18-30? The Garrick Club? Reality TV? Pub quizzes? Dr Who? Mean-spirited, hypocritical and opinionated newspaper columnists? Some people might say Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill are as British as you can get without falling over in a faint and yet both Churchill and Christie, as it happens, were half American.

So what is quintessentially American? Apple pie or Apple computers? Walmart or Wall Street? Trump Towers or Twin Towers? Jimmi Hendrix or Jimmy Stewart? Opportunity or opportunism? Small town courtesy or small-minded bigotry. Hearty milk and cookies or Harvey Milk and hookers. Blue collars, red necks, white supremacy or black power? The Simpsons or The Waltons, Family values or Family Guy, Holly Golightly or Hollywood, Penn State or the State Pen or Sean Penn, the right to life or the right to electrocute, capitalism or capital crimes, poncey dreams or Ponzi schemes, Nobel prize winners or ignoble price fixers, a country that can land men on the moon and yet has a majority who believe that angels walk amongst us – I suppose we could play this game of opposites for ever for I do not know a single thing that can be said about America whose reverse is not also true. It is a land of opportunity and yet there are more seventeen year old black youths in prison than in college. It is a land of freedom where in many states you can’t buy fireworks or alcohol or cross the street as a pedestrian where you please and where children’s books are banned and educational material suppressed if they do not square with some religious dogma or other. It is a land of church-going traditionalists and a land of freaks and fancies. A nation founded in revolution where radicalism is next to Satanism. A land of industry where indolence has created an epidemic of obesity whose walking examples, or waddling examples I should say, have to be seen to be believed. One country riven by a depth of mutual bipartisan enmity, loathing and distrust that threatens entirely to divide it into two and propel the nation into a new Civil War. However much Britain may be divided along tribal lines, it is as nothing when compared to America. The reciprocated antipathy is intense and seems irreconcilable. Did the election of Obama heal that fissure? Briefly seal it perhaps, but certainly not heal it. A hundred days later it all seems to be opening up again as wide as ever and anyone who watches Fox News will know that as far as President Obama’s political enemies are concerned the honeymoon was over before the garbled vows were out of the bridegroom’s mouth: the United States were soon disunited all over again.

But that is not my subject today. Just two days ago President Obama announced that he was aiming for a Federal science and research budget that would represent 3% of America’s output. I’ll quote him in full: “I believe it is not in our character, American character, to follow — but to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. I am here today to set this goal: we will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development.” Heaven knows I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that. When he mentioned science in his inaugural address I cheered too. Those who cheer the opposite, those who cheer the sweeping back of the achievements of the enlightenment, those who believe they are doing god’s and the family’s work by defying relativism and re-asserting absolutism they may boo, but I do not. But let’s look at for me the most interesting part of the President’s statement.

This strikes, I think, at the heart of the juicy mixture of beguiling paradoxes, ambiguities and contradictions that distinguishes all things American, whether that mixture will emulsify or curdle is perhaps the question of our age. The title of my lecture is supposed to be America’s Place In The World (and I may as well confess here and now that Mr D’Ancona made it up, handed it to me and printed out the fliers before I had a chance to consider what I wanted to lecture on. But that’s fine. Easier to respond to a clear commission than to start from a blurred blankness). The US President has answered the question for me. America’s place in the world, it seems, is in the van. At the front. Leading, not following.

Well, in terms of international policy, peace-keeping, policing and global influence this may still be true. But I cannot speak to abstracts domestic or international, nor to policy and strategy, nor would you want me to: I can only speak to concrete and observable entities such as I perceive them. Is it in the American character, not to follow, but to lead?

With the not insignificant exception of the Native American Indians and most of the black population, America is comprised of the descendants of men and women who at some point over the last three hundred years or so wanted to improve their lives. They left their miserable shtetls and peasant hovels and urban slums and blighted potato fields and sailed the Atlantic. ‘We can do better,’ they said as one. ‘Sod Europe.’ They were animated by a restless desire to move on and make something of their lives. We can do better. A belief in improvability is written into the gene pool of their descendants, today’s Americans. Belief itself is imprinted there. Eugenics may be a discredited science, in fact it is not a science at all, but I think even if one cannot accurately isolate and calibrate the physical genetic difference between those Europeans who chose to move and those who chose to stay, one can state with some assurance that whatever the genotype at least the characteristics of the cultural and social phenotype are distinctive. Itchy feet. Ambition. Improvability. Belief. We Europeans, on the other hand, we are descended from those who said, ‘Oh well, could be worse, I suppose. Not getting into one of those nasty ships and going to a new world. Typical of uppity cousin Frank to think he can just march off and start again. Who does he think he is?’

Anyone who has visited an American bookshop will know that far and away the biggest section is devoted to self-help and the literature of Improvability across business, health, psychotherapy, dieting and love life. From How To Win Friends and Influence People, by way of 10 Things They Didn’t Teach Chicken Soup for Martian Men Without Tears it has grown into a genre worth billions. I will readily admit that the virus has reached our shores and that the shelving real estate devoted to this kind of literature is increasing year by year in British bookstores too, but it is quite clearly a US phenomenon and represents a deep part of the American belief that there is a technique to everything, that anyone and everyone can improve. Preaching is imprinted into the cultural DNA too. All this suggests a, to me, intriguing, historical and theological connection between America and certain protestant precepts of preaching and biblical exegesis and doctrines of improvability and works as opposed to the Higher Church, Anglo-catholic and Romish practices of ritual and ceremony and doctrines of original sin and submission. Politically this translates into the uncontroversial, I hope, conclusion that America was a Whig creation, not a Tory. Of course Whiggism per se no longer exists as a political force and Tories might, at first glance, think themselves the natural progenitors of America, for the word Tory is now associated with a belief in free markets and a dislike of big government, principles that strike an obvious chord across the Atlantic. But Tory, as I’m sure you know, originally referred to factions of Romish and high Anglican Jacobites with a distinct belief in the divine right of kings and a loathing of that entirely Protestant and Whig project, the Glorious Revolution and its 1689 Bill of Rights. With its phrases about ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, its insistence on the Commons and Lords having the right over the sovereign to raise money to fight wars, its reaffirmation of Magna Carta with a new emphasis on an independent judiciary – with all that, the text of the Bill of Rights reads like a rough draft of the American Constitution. Indeed throughout the document you could take the words ‘King’ and ‘Parliament’ and substitute them with the words ‘President’ and ‘Congress’ and you would swear it was the US Constitution you were reading.

So a nation founded politically on seventeenth century early Whig principles, as well as on those of Locke and then of Voltaire and Tom Payne. Founded somewhere on the broad spectrum of Protestantism: from the infrared of doctrinally mild churchmanship at one end to Puritanism, Levellers, Shakers, Quakers and various ultraviolet shades of dissenting sect at the other. The enlightenment, a work ethic, a belief in improvability, a reluctance to bow the knee to hierarchical authorities. Empiricism, rationalism and improvability working together as seen in the life and works of Franklin and Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness, a mission of self-amelioration and moving on, Manifest Destiny, the pioneer and the frontiersman, Horace Greely’s famous ‘Go West, Young Man’ and the railway barons and millionaires and financiers. The Almighty Dollar was born.

But the culture and literature of self-help and improvability is riddled with contradictions. On the one hand such books claim to release and empower, and on the other they promise a solution, a technique, a methodology that must be followed, adhered to, obeyed. Americans flock to these manuals and courses out of what seems to us a propensity not to lead or to think for themselves but precisely the opposite, from a naïve, trusting propensity to follow that would be charming in its ingenuousness if it did not strike us as so gullible in its credulity. The solutions and methodologies contained in the wiseacre effusions of these repulsive life coaches are usually reducible to that very American precept: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. This could almost be the very motto of the United States. It seems so perfect, so ingenious, so satisfying. To understand its full meaning you have first to be aware that ‘lemonade’ to an American represents more than just a drink: according to the pleasingly cosy mythology of small-town America a child’s first experience of the enterprise economy traditionally comes when they set up a lemonade stand in the road outside their house. You and I might have made a cake for the village fete or raised pennies for the guy, but Bart and Lisa will set up a lemonade stall at which kindly disposed adults stop and spend a few quarters, nodding their heads in benevolent approval at the reassuring signs of good old American entrepreneurialism in the next generation. So – ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ is not just a way of saying make the best of a bad job, it is really a call to enterprise, initiative, self-help and finding ways to transform a disappointment into a dollar. Turn a problem into a challenge, a challenge into an opportunity, blah-di-blah di-blah. Welcome to the world of the business self-help book and life coach course, the world of observations so bowel-shatteringly trite, so arse-paralysingly obvious, so ball-bouncingly commonplace they make your nose bleed. A world where banality, venality and cracker barrel philosophising combine with outrageous pseudo-science, greasy false promises and grotesque opportunism. Business and lifestyle books of this nature synthesise the Phineas T. Barnum snake-oil huckster on the one hand and the Elmer Gantry homiletic exegete on the other. For the protestant tradition is one of adherence to the text. For the religious that text is the thumped bible that promises riches stored up in heaven, for the mercantile it is a book that promises riches stored up on earth. Conveniently these days, the bible thumpers happily square their circle and manage to offer riches in both realms, despite what would appear to be a repeated and unequivocal insistence against such a possibility by their religion’s founder. In either case to the outside observer it looks like a case of one being born every minute … Maybe that goes back to the gene pool too. The need to believe in self-improvement, in moving on, was likely to involve a belief in the guy who could sell you tickets for your passage to America along with promises that you’ll be met at the quayside, given a job, land and prosperity. In North Dakota for example, not the most prepossessing of America’s territories, they changed the name of the state capital to Bismarck in order to attract over German farmers, who came lured by the prospect of paradise and found an all but barren land that gets to 30 below in winter and up to the 100s in summer. The neighbouring South Dakota at least has the badlands and the Black Hills. North Dakota is so bad it hasn’t even got badlands. Yet Fritz and Otto were suckered into sinking their all in there and their descendants to this day till the same scanty and unforgiving soil. Sometimes belief means credulity, sometimes an expression of faith and hope which even the most sceptical atheist such as myself cannot but find inspiring. ‘I have a dream’ is the refrain of the most famous American speech of the last hundred years. Martin Luther King’s chorus is perhaps the signature American credo. And credo, of course means ‘I believe’, for it might be fair to suggest that Americans say ‘believe’ when really they mean ‘hope’ or ‘dream’. At any rate belief is imprinted into the phenotype, sometimes as I say inspirationally, sometimes to that point of credulity where wishing defeats reason.

You might argue then that America is not only a gene pool of adventurers, idealists and go-getters but also a gene pool of saps. A 18th century cant word for a con artist was a sharp (as in cardsharp) while the suckers and the gulls were called flats. The still sad sweet music of American humanity is full of accidentals you might say – full of sharps and flats. The tradition of con artist, grifter and schemer continues to this day up to that prize exhibit of peculation and malversation, Bernie Madoff as in ‘Bernie Madoff his cap as much as he likes, but Bernie Madoff with our money.’

But you can only con – it is an absolute rule of fraudulence – someone who wants something. Cons are about presenting opportunities, building castles in the air with words, offering visions of gold: in the case of Joseph Smith and the founding of Mormonism, literal gold in the form of inscribed gold plates delivered from heaven to an improbable address in New England. The more staggeringly absurd the promise the more likely, it seems, are you to find Americans willing to believe it. But the point is, if you don’t want for anything, you can’t be conned. And all Americans want for something. It is in that restless, insatiable DNA. It drives their capitalism and it defines their hopeful, confident can-do spirit of idealism and improvement as well as their belief that answers to life’s financial and spiritual impoverishments can be written down in a book. The very openness and optimism we love about Americans has a credulous and gullible obverse side. And maybe the things we routinely despise about ourselves as Britons, our scepticism, cynicism, doubt, pessimism, miserablism and suspicion – maybe they have a positive obverse. Empiricism, the great quality, the great and especially British quality, that fired the Enlightenment is essentially predicated on distrust. It distrusts convention, it distrusts revealed divine texts and it even distrusts reason (Newton famously aced the rationalist Pascal over the theory of light and optics by taking a piece of card and piercing a hole in it – something few continental intellectuals would deign to do). So perhaps our grumpy British fatalism and reluctance to trust or believe is not wholly to be deprecated after all, unattractive as it undoubtedly is.

Now in case this is sounding like an attack on American values and traits, let me say that my love, admiration and fascination remains intact. I am taking a line for a walk, I am playing with ideas here, not denouncing America and America’s characteristics, but delineating them as I see them from my wholly secular and idiosyncratic pulpit, this lectern.

But let me risk further strictures on American style by returning to what for me is the real lesson to be learned about America from that popular dictum about turning lemons into lemonade … let me illustrate my point with a story.

I was filming around Bilbao and environs in Northern Spain some years ago. The cast of our film was invited to the San Sebastian Film Festival premiere of a new Polanski movie called The Ninth Gate, not one of dear Roman’s best, but perfectly enjoyable and always a pleasure to be in St. Sebastian, or ‘Donostia’ as the Basques call it. I won’t go into the plot of the film, perhaps you know it anyway: suffice to say Johnny Depp plays an art dealer who gets involved in some sort of satanic Hammer House of Horror brouhaha or other. The opening reel takes place in New York (not filmed there of course: Mr Polanski can’t go to America) and there is a scene where Johnny Depp’s character arrives at his apartment, goes to the fridge, takes a pizza box from the freezer section, removes a frozen pizza and pops it into the microwave. Cue howls of laughter from the audience. I am sitting one row behind Johnny Depp and can see that he is rather perplexed by these helpless gales of Hispanic merriment and I hear him whisper to the Festival Director next to him, “Why are they laughing?” to which the Spaniard replies, wiping tears from his own eyes, “Because they cannot believe that anyone would do that to their stomach!” Genuine perplexity on both sides. An American thinks: why would anyone find placing a frozen ready-made pizza inside a microwave amusing? – a Spaniard, especially a Basque, whose cuisine is exceptional, thinks: why would anyone, above all somebody cultured and prosperous, insult their digestion with such complete rubbish?

So let me look again at that holy text: ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ Huh? But… but… Lemons are amongst the best and most wonderful gifts of nature. They are adaptable, versatile and delicious. A slice for your gin and tonic – juice to zing life into salads, stews, fish and seafood. Oil and sweetness from the rind and zest that is pure and perfumed and precious. They are a staple of what doctors agree is the best dietary regimen we can follow. So if life gives you lemons, shout ‘Thank you, Life, thank you!’ But the American response is ‘make lemonade’ in other words – just add sugar and sell it.

Add sugar and sell it. This can be translated across into culture, can it not? When life gives you folk literature, gothic fairy tales and myth, what does Disney do? Add sugar and sell it. When the body of world art and tradition gives you complexity, ambiguity and difficulty – add sugar. When news and events present obstacles, problems and conflict – add sugar. For America sugar is an unalloyed good in and of itself and as a metaphor, a symbol. It might seem that Americans have the taste buds and desires of children. We know this from their popular foodstuffs: melted cheese, fried chicken, milk-shakes, cookies, candy, fizzy sugared drinks, pappy hamburgers smothered in sugared sauce – even their so-called high-end coffee is flavoured with sweet vanilla, cinnamon or hazelnut. Adults are helped to stay childish though sport, games, gadgets, monster-trucks and escapist movies, cowboys, superheroes, comic book villains and thrilling science fiction. Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin from Family Guy, are lovable forgivable funny and charming inasmuch as they are children. It’s all about how many cup-holders their cars have, nothing to do with suspension or engine, it’s all about feeding their stomachs and their minds with things that are sweet and easily assimilated: non-complex carbohydrates and non-complex concepts. It is no accident that in Family Guy, which if you haven’t seen you really must, the most memorable and popular character is Stewie, a sinister and malevolent babe in arms who is funny because he is entirely adult and sophisticated – and to prove it he has an English accent. He is sceptical about everything where his family is credulous about everything, melancholy where they are pointlessly breezy, direct and secretive where they are euphemistic and lacking in mystery.

While American women might seem less infantile, I think the cultural, social and indeed culinary influence of men allows me to make the generalisations I have. The little girl pageants, the underarm and leg shaving, the depilation and waxing to the point of Brazilian glabrousness of the American female, they certainly contrast with Mediterranean women’s ideals and suggest an infantilising purpose which is perhaps a little troubling. At all events all these are outward and visible signs of inward and invisible properties.

Professor Gomes of Harvard, a black, Baptist, republican, gay theologian told me once: “Americans don’t like solutions that are difficult, complex or ambiguous. If you can’t explain it in terms of good and bad they will not want to know. That is why most of them cannot accept evolutionary theory and why other nations and their systems are viewed as either good or bad, friend or foe.” It was interesting to hear from an American. It made me think that while the monochrome Britain I grew up may have been drab, it perhaps at least inculcated an ability to discern shades of grey. Shades of grey were all we had, we became expert at reading them.

It sounds as if I am building up a rather damning case against America. A land of infantile suckers. Suckers of sugar and suckers who follow every purveyor of snake oil and paradise. Leaders? Far from it. Followers. At worst vulgar simpletons, at best children.

Well, I count myself one of those suckers for at least 50% of the time. I love dumb action movies, and sentimental weepies. I love hamburgers smothered in sweet tangy sauce. I love toys and games and theme parks and RVs and spectacle and simple solutions. I love having my vulgar glands and cheap sensation receptors tweaked and tickled. I love believing in promises of a brighter future. I love the idea that training myself to breathe only through my nose or to chew my food 48 times before swallowing will make me thinner, less stressed and sleep better or whatever the latest fad might be. I love the idea that five simple mantras chanted twice a day might help me concentrate, make love more satisfyingly and become richer or that by following Jesus or Anthony Robbins will make me rich and happy.

For at least 50% of the time.

But for the rest of the time I want the truth. I want it unsweetened. I want to wash my mouth free of all sweeteners. I want to test all claims and statements on the anvil of experience or by empirical double blind randomised cohorts according to best scientific practice. I want to doubt, to experience, to think, to challenge and to scoff. I want art and literature and cinema and music that rejects easy pappy, poppy formulae and which reflects the truth of experience and all the ambiguities and complexities of existence. I want not sweet but bitter and sour and salt. I want realism not idealism. I want facts not fancies. I want imagination not wishing upon a star. I want learning, language and literature not philistinism, fantasy and infantilism.

Plato bade us imagine a creation myth that supposes an originally single sex human species that was split into two genders that are doomed forever to seek each other out and attempt to reunite into that original, atavistic unisex entity. Perhaps we should think of Western civilisation as having undergone a similar schism. Once we Europeans were one: 50 percent childlike, optimistic, open, innocent, credulous, dupable, fervent in believing in improvability and in systematic answers to life’s problems and the other half adult, sophisticated, worldly, pessimistic, suspicious and sceptical – distrustful of panaceas and pulpits and with a taste for darker flavours and more adult pursuits. The optimistic, go-getting, trusting, hopeful, childlike and credulous half upped-sticks and sailed for a New World, leaving behind in the old one only the stuck-in-the-mud, doubting, adult half. We have yearned for each other, without daring to admit it, ever since. America has longed for the sophistication, history and adult wisdom of Europe and Europe has pined for the childlike sweetness, instant fun and optimistic self-belief of America. The Yes We Can of Obama crystallised that quality into a battle cry which resonated just as much with us here in Europe, where we are tired of our own countervailing battle moan of “It’ll Never Work: not a chance. Forget it. What’s the point?”

When one talks of national characteristics one always leaves oneself open to ridicule. Am I claiming that there are no sophisticated Americans? Gourmandising, discerning Americans who despise sugar and sentiment? American pessimists and sceptics? Of course there are. I repeat an earlier asseveration: there is nothing you can say about America whose opposite is not also just as true. That is part of the allure of the place to me. And conversely, surely there are vulgar, obese, gullible, infantile Europeans? I don’t need to ask the question. None such in this lecture theatre of course. Well, two perhaps. Okay, three…

You know, I’ve a pet theory that none of this will matter in ten or twenty years, for America is almost certain in my unreliable view to be plunged into a cataclysmic and catastrophic civil war by then, one from which it may not properly recover for decades.

No, this internecine conflict I am picturing will not be fought over ideologies. It will not be a war of left versus right, religious versus secular, rich versus poor – nor of race or sect, nor white versus black, Christian versus Moslem, nothing like that. No, my visit to America showed me that the real tension will come as state declares war on state over … water. Who takes how much water from upstream of which river that runs through which states, who dams and reservoirs and controls the waters, these are the questions that will count. Utah against Arizona, Texas against Oklahoma, Colorado against California, Tennessee against Kentucky (I may even have to use my colonelcy and fight for Kentucky after all). Believe me, water will be a greater casus belli than abortion, gay marriage, global warming, race and the economy all rolled into one. The silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River has still a bestarring role to beplay… but that’s another story and another lecture from someone who knows much more about these things than I do.

I’ve pointed out before that when something shocking, amazing, eccentric, wild, weird or unpredictable happens over there, you will often hear the amused and proud phrase, ‘Sheesh! Only in America!’ If you were to hear a Briton say ‘Tch! only in Britain!’ I think we can agree that it would almost certainly refer to something that was either predictable, miserable, oppressive, dull, bureaucratic, queuey, damp, spoil-sporty or incompetent – or usually a deadening mixture of all of those. Americans are constantly being surprised by their own country. We are constantly having our worst fears confirmed about ours. Literally this afternoon I was chatting to a courier who delivered some books to my house and we bantered back and forth about the coming cricket tours of the West Indies and the Australians.

‘There’s a chance Australia will lose, I suppose,’ said the courier. ‘After all they somehow did in 2003.’

‘Hang on,’ I said, nettled. ‘What do you mean Australia might lose? Don’t you mean England might win?’

‘England win? I don’t think we can go that far,’ he said. ‘England win!’ he left shaking his head and chuckling.

That’s Britain: we can’t win. We just have to hope the other guys lose.

Would I live in America? In a heartbeat. Would I miss Britain? No, for I’d take it with me, bag and baggage, scrip and scrippage, attitude and affect, manner and mannerism. I couldn’t not.

Finally then, as a lover of empiricism and passionate advocate of the fruits of the enlightenment I confess that it worries me that, despite President Obama’s commitment to science, his statement ‘I believe it is not in [the] … American character, to follow – but to lead’ might more accurately have been phrased: ‘I believe it is in the American character to lead the world in our willingness to follow. To follow anything be it never so trite, simplistic, irrational or incredible.’ But then perhaps we British lead the world in our unwillingness to follow anything, be it never so appealing, beguiling or bright with possibility.

Ah well. I am not sure we have arrived at any resolute certainties this evening. If you have not enjoyed or agreed with what I have said, well you can just – add sugar."

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Instruments fit for scheming.


If I had a big load of money and needed to spend it all this weekend and had a huge laboratory (pronounced 'lab-OR-a-tree') to fill up or a steampunk movie I had to buy props for, I would fill up a truck at the
Tennants Auctioneers: Scientific and Musical Instruments sale this weekend. It's only about 35 miles away.