This is why I read John Kay:
In the 20th century political frontiers became a central influence on economic life. Old Kaspar’s work presumably consisted of providing food, fuel and shelter for his family. But with complex products, varied consumer tastes and low degrees of personal sufficiency, resource allocation became less of an individual enterprise, more one of the social and political environment.
That observation is evident on the Finnish-Russian border. The razor wire kept Russian citizens in when the living standards of planned societies and market economies diverged. But now the border is easy to cross and the gap in per capita income has narrowed, though not by much. The very different income distributions of egalitarian Finland and inegalitarian Russia can be seen in the car parks and designer shops of Lappeenranta.
In the Soviet era, Finland produced Marimekko; Russia made no clothes any fashion-conscious woman would want to buy. Post-Communist but still autocratic Russia made surveillance equipment; democratic Finland led the world in mobile phones. Today Russia’s geeks hack into your bank account, while those of Finland develop Angry Birds."
Having spent a day in Paris, it would be criminal blog negligence not to mention something about it, and put in a few pictures. I was there Saturday, and got to see a little of the Latin Quarter and the old Jewish quarter. Mainly, I took pictures. It goes without saying that a day is not nearly long enough to see the city, but it's all I had. I'll have to go back another time.
Gare du Lyon station, via flickr
Along the Seine, via flickr
Florence Kahn, the noted Kosher bakery/deli/etc., via flickr
The obligatory picture of Notre Dame, via flickr
Small Fountain, via flickr
Shakespeare and Company, via flickr
I think everyone will agree that 18 hours is far too little time to really see Paris; likewise, any seasoned traveler will agree that 8 hours is more than enough time to experience Charles De Gaulle airport. Or at least that's what I expect to conclude, after my day here.
I was supposed to be on a flight home early this morning, but thanks to a problem with my ticket that's too pedestrian to share yet sufficiently problematic to keep me from getting on the plane, I've got a full day here at CDG. I was going to fly out of the relatively new Terminal 2E, which is a shiny giant shed-type hall familiar to anyone who's spent time in Singapore, Malaysia, Terminals 4 and 5 of Heathrow, the phenomenal Denver airport, or any number of other airports built in the last decade. (For those of you who don't know, the Very Big Terminal That's Also a Destination and a Statement is all the rage, and the new ones tend to be mind-bogglingly large open spaces.) Since I could get a flight on Continental and United for 1/4 what Air France wanted, and since Star Alliance flies out of Terminal 1, I'm here.
For those of you who've never been to Terminal 1 and are of a certain age, you've seen it on the cover of the Alan Parsons Project's classic album I Robot. For those who are younger, imagine the proposed donut-shaped Apple headquarters... gone terribly, terribly wrong.
I really enjoyed myself on this trip, I have a growing number of French friends, and I find the place completely lacking the snobbishness that Americans expect (partly this is a function of moving in tech and academic circles, whose membership seems to regularly worry about having to play catch-up to the US). But Terminal 1 is one of the great, if not the greatest, acts of architectural contempt ever. It's like foreign policy in the 2000s, or the creation of subprime mortgages designed for people who couldn't even make the first payment. It seemed like a good idea in a certain heady, breathe-your-own-exhaust bobble, but in retrospect is so obviously a bad idea you have to wonder: didn't anybody say something?
The thing that sums it all up is the central courtyard, which is enclosed by the torus-shaped building, and whose airspace is crisscrossed with people movers, like the travelators at Ikea that always seem to be out of order. It was probably meant to be a commentary on alienation and modernity, or maybe it was a way for the travelers to begin to take to the skies as soon as they headed to their gates, but-- bitch, PLEASE. They're a bunch of damn hamster tubes. I doubt anyone working today would create something that would be such a challenge to maintain, and creates such a traffic bottleneck. We still make plenty of design mistakes, but I think airport designers today would make different ones.
The rest of the airport feels to me like your basic 1960s modernist dream, the sort of thing that Archigram and Team X would have cried tears of joy over: it's all roughened, sculptural concrete, primary colors, glass and metal. Some of the ceiling detailing has a wing-like filigree that suggests that Someone Was Trying, but still... it's a whole that's much less than the sum of its parts.
Plus a circular building feels like a mistake. It takes a big space and makes it feel eternally smaller, without hinting that there are interesting things elsewhere. And of course, expansion is impossible. You can't build onto a building like this, you can only build new terminals in the same general time zone (the inter-terminal train system deserves high marks).
Still, it's better than the Dulles gates, if only because the contrast between Saarinen's magnificent main terminal and the shocking pedestrianism of every later expansion is so painful. The other terminals don't feel like they were even designed: they were assembled in the same Platonic architectural workshop that mindlessly turns out self-serve gas stations and downscale strip malls. At least this place was trying to make a statement, and no matter how badly they misfired or how poorly the project has aged, there was effort here.
But I found a working power outlet for my iPad, I have Diet Coke, I have 900 pictures downloading into my photo editor, and most important, I have a ticket home. So it's cool.
On this trip I've experimented with leaving my laptop behind and just taking my iPad, and so far it's performed pretty brilliantly. So long as I have an Internet connection I can do pretty much everything I would want to do with a laptop, and even without one I can do about 80% of the things I would normally do with my MacBook Pro.
The thing that makes the difference is the keyboard. Apple makes an excellent Bluetooth keyboard, which is both extremely thin and light, and has a good solid feel: they're full-sized keys, and they have nice throw, so I don't feel like I (or my hands) are compromising. And the difference between writing with a real keyboard, and tapping on the screen, is like night and day: I can tap with more than one finger on each hand, but it's not as fast or accurate as when I'm using real keys. Not only do I make more mistakes, but I can't feel when I make mistakes, the way I do when I'm using a regular keyboard.
Of course, the other thing that makes a big difference in the functionality of the iPad + keyboard is not the device itself, but rather the fact that I've got a bunch of useful material up online that I can access when I'm writing my talks. In particular, my habit of putting pictures up on Flickr is really starting to pay off: as my photography has improved (or at least gotten more quirkily distinctive, and migrated to ever more impressive devices), that's turned into an online repository that I can access when I'm revising my talks and need to illustrate new points.
I would like to see better synchronization between my machine and iDisk, or a feature that automatically backed up files to my iDisk. Or rather, I would like this for my hosts, so they could always have access to the latest version of my talk.
I may go for an adapter to connect the iPad to a monitor, but I really liked being able to carry around the iPad and read my talk off it. I worried that it looked a little dorky, and it probable does; but apparently the aluminum back reflects the stage lights in cool ways, so I'm going to keep reading off it (and maybe look for some holographic cards or such to tape on the back for such occasions). I know it makes me look a little like Jonathan Pryce's evil Rupert Murdoch-like character in that James Bond movie, but c'est la vie.
The other thing I'll have to practice is using it as another display surface, so I can occasionally different images than what's showing in the presentation, or maybe toss our specific words than I want the audience to focus on. Not even technically or logistically difficult: I could just add pictures to the presentation text, and flip over the screen when I want to show something to people.
Though I wonder if the VGA adapter works with the iPhone? Could I do presentations in Keynote and then run them off my phone, while reading the text on the iPad? Must experiment. I should also see what the Keynote remote control is like.
I'm in Marseille, France, for another hour or so. Since I got here I've been running around, looking at demos, working on my talk, or walking around and taking pictures, so I've not had a lot of time to post. However, I'm now in the train station, waiting for a train to Paris, and rather than walk around one more neighborhood with my bags, I decided to just hang.
Before I came here, I checked out my local bookstore for travel guides on Marseille. There aren't any. This is the second (or maybe third) biggest city in France, yet according to the travel industry no one goes here: tourists avoid it in favor of Aix or Lyon or other more attractive places. You'd never know that it wasn't a destination here: the train station is full of backpackers and families with rolling luggage.
But I can see why it's not considered by the guidebooks to be authentically French, in that imaginary pure Gallic way: being a 3,000 year-old port city, Marseille is a real hybrid, with people from all over the Mediterranean. Lots of Tunisian and Moroccan restaurants, west African shops, tourists from Scandinavia and Spain, and the occasional English speaker. It's not as hyper-developed as some cities; it's more like Budapest than Vienna, but it's by no means unattractive or run down, nor is it palpably unsafe.
I gave my talk on contemplative computing on Friday afternoon, right after lunch. Somehow I seem to gravitate to the post-lunch talk times, but what can you do. I was up until 3 the night before refining the talk, and the next morning tinkered with it some more; partly I was still cutting it down, and partly I was working in references to earlier talks and some cool demos I had seen at the conference exhibit hall. But I think it paid off: I was certainly pleased with the talk, I think it introduced the ideas well, and people seemed to like it.
I'll put up a copy of the talk with pictures later.
One of the great things here has been the food: both nights I ran into people with whom I went out to dinner, and we found various Moroccan or Tunisian places that were excellent. I may have to buy a tagine when I get home.
Okay, off to get my train. More from Paris!
I'm at SFO, on my way to the Lift 2011 conference in Marseille. Curiously, while it's the second largest city in France, it doesn't seem to be a place that you can get to from here; plus, thanks to some complications with my travel plans (which my conference organizers were incredibly good about dealing with, I must say for the record), I'm flying to LAX, connecting to a New Zealand Air flight to Heathrow (ah, Heathrow!), then taking Air France to Paris. After that, it's onto the TGV, for a three-hour train ride to Marseille.
I'm actually quite looking forward to that last, as it'll give me a chance to see something of France. Other than one hurried connection through De Gaulle about five or six years ago, I haven't been in France at all, and hear there are some parts that are cool.
My talk at the conference is on contemplative computing, and is part of a session on the concept of "Slow." I'm doing a much less technical version of the talk this time: the first couple times I gave it, I was speaking to HCI and new media audiences, and this one will be a broader mix of people (though since it's sponsored by an organization devoted to next-generation Internet activities, there will be plenty of folks who do know technology). So rather than being a lot of stuff about the skilled nature of calm and name-checks to Wittgenstein and Weiser, the main message of this talk will be "you don't have to let information technologies drive you nuts."
I'm experimenting with just taking my iPad2, and leaving the laptop behind. This means I can't work on the slides, but I consider that a good thing: given that when I can I'll promiscuously throw in images and new ideas at the last minute, it's better for me to have the discipline of a fixed set of images to work with. I can-- and as I hear other speakers, fully expect to-- revise the talk itself, and it occurred ot me last night that I could actually edit it on the iPad and read it on the device. I don't know if that'll be cool or dangerous, or a little of both.
But given that my talk style is now to use almost all images and no text, I think this new approach will work.
I've also not packed ANY books at all: I've got other stuff to work on, and besides, I put a couple things on the Kindle. (I'm very skeptical of ebooks being useful for intellectual work, given that serious reading is a martial art, but I figure they should be fine for Jane Austen and Raymond Chandler.) So I'm now in the curious situation of having a camera that's considerably heavier than my computer. I can live.
I got here ridiculously early-- we start boarding at 11:20, and I got to SFO just before 9. But better that than rushing through the airport. And besides, I can work in airports and airplanes as well as anywhere.
So I'm on my flight to London, thence to Paris and Marseille. Usually I take United direct from SFO, but this time I had to route through Los Angeles, and am on Air New Zealand. I've never flown Air New Zealand before, and I hadn't really thought about what the flight might be like.
It's been less than an hour, but this might be my new favorite airline. These airlines from small countries with new fleets, that do a lot of long haul flights, really have to figure out how to make travel comfortable.
The safety video featured Richard Simmons, and an uncredited cameo by Mark Harmon (it's good to see he's getting work). There's an awesome entertainment system (albeit with an emphasis on New Zealand movies, though with actors like Tamaeru Morrison and the scandalous under-representation of Kiwi cinema on Netflix streaming, that's not really a problem), power outlets in the seat, and some kind of reclining footrest thing that I haven't figured out yet.
It's like a Singapore Air but with a sense of humor.
It makes me think it would be cool to go to New Zealand. I can only hope they have digital distraction issues there, and the book takes off.
Don't know what the food is like, but I have hopes. And my iPad gets to charge up as we head for the Atlantic.
Stumbled on this tonight, and it's a great piece of architecture.
I don't know what it is, though.
However, in its small way it's as cool as the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
The subway stop near our hotel is decorated with images from old video games, including Pac Man.
You've gotta love a public transportation this whimsical. It's also really, really efficient.
It started snowing this morning, and hasn't stopped. I didn't expect to see several inches by this evening, but that's what we've got.
I went to the conference for a morning session on innovation systems; it was interesting to compare attempts to build systems here to ones I've seen or been involved with in Silicon Valley, thought reading John Kay's Obliquity has made me skeptical of all attempts to reduce things as complex as innovation and entrepreneurship to a set of business processes. However, that doesn't mean that people shouldn't keep trying to work on these issues, just that we need to recognize that our best efforts are likely to move the needle just a little.
I confess I didn't know much about the Mobile Life Centre, but was quite favorably impressed with it. There's a neat group of students, and several really great senior researchers, including a couple who've had close ties to Microsoft Research.
After that I met Heather and had lunch in a pizza and kebab place in Gamla Stan.
It was unexpectedly huge, so instead of eating out, after going to the Royal Palace and the medieval museum, we had coffee at Coffeehouse by George, bought some bread and cheese at NK, and had dinner in our room. Between Heather having a bit of a cold and it being freezing cold outside, a quiet evening inside seemed like the thing.
Our hotel room, by the way, has been quite nice: it's essentially a studio apartment, with a little kitchen, and one of those slightly mysterious European bathrooms (what do people have against showers that don't spill water everywhere)?
We leave Stockholm tomorrow morning, and head back to England. Then we have Saturday to ourselves, and Sunday the kids arrive for a week.
We're in Stockholm, Sweden for the next couple days. I'm at a conference at the Mobile Life Center, in Kista, which is the high-tech neighborhood of Stockholm. Lots of interesting-sounding stuff the next couple days, but we got here in time to see a little of the city.
After flying from Heathrow via Amsterdam, and taking a taxi from Arland airport to the city (hint: take the train, there's nothing to see driving), we got to our hotel, then immediately set out for Gamla Stan, the old town (actually its old island).
More about it later; I've got a bunch of pictures up on Flickr. It's a really cool place.
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This afternoon I went to the Jewish Museum Vienna. The museum is located near Stephensplatz, in the center of the city, in a building that was once the residence of a Hungarian count, and later an art gallery. I had heard good things about it, but I was completely unprepared for how unexpectedly brilliant and moving it is. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the history of Europe should have some passing familiarity with the brilliant and tragic history of the Jewish community in Vienna. But the experience of the museum isn't powerful because it plays on your emotions in obvious ways: it's not a kind of material version of Schindler's List. It's an amazing experience for other reasons.
The bottom floor is dominated by a large room with selections from the Max Berger Collection of Judaica. The room itself has a curved wall that stretches to the top floor.
It reminded me of Adolf Loos' Steiner House, one of the great milestones of early Viennese modernism.
steiner house, vienna
The exhibit is in one long case, with selections from the Torah etched on the glass in front of the objects.
The placement of the words is unconventional to say the least, and the intention is twofold. First, it's meant to remind you that the objects were used in rituals that were communal and spoken, and were themselves representations of the divine: in a way, the words are what you should focus on, and the objects are their mere physical expression. Second, the words present a challenge: you have to choose to look past them to see the objects. Seeing objects and their history actually isn't easy, and the design of the exhibit highlights this fact.
Now if this all sounds kind of postmodern, you're exactly right. Indeed, the whole museum is saturated with an awareness of the complex nature of representation: the current exhibit on stereotypes, for example, talks about this a lot (no surprise).
It's hard to talk about stereotypes and not sound kind of saccharine or predictable: even if you try to apply some reflexivity or rigor, people who study stereotypes tend to conclude that "stereotypes are bad." I haven't seen someone (say) deconstruct Amos and Andy and conclude that black people really are awfully funny when they shuffle.
But even the stereotypes exhibit-- inevitably titled "typical!"-- is saved by the amazingly good design. Everything about the exhibits is carefully constructed: the lighting is terrific, the artifacts are well-placed, the rooms flow into each other smoothly, and there are all kinds of interesting choices-- the scrims that hold the captions and gently divide rooms, most notably-- that make the experience a lot more compelling that I expected. Too often we associate this kind of perfectionism with a lack of passion and creativity: real creativity is messy and ragged and inspired, grunge rock rather than Chopin. But that's not at all true: perfectionism can communicate a level of reverence for craft and content that forces you to take its subject more seriously.
That experience of consciously looking through-- looking through words etched in glass, through cloth, through one's own perceptions and limitations-- in the Berger Collection and typical! reaches a climax in the viewable storage room in the archive, on the top floor.
Actually, that's not quite true. It's more complicated than that. In a normal museum, there are objects that are stored away and inaccessible to the public. The visible storage room, as the name suggests, makes the storage of objects... visible. There are map drawers, climate-controlled storage for textiles, and movable stacks, all the kinds of things that historians are familiar with. Even if you're not someone who's spent time in archives, you might find that infrastructure kind of interesting; but if like me, and you've literally grown up in archives (when I was a kid I went with my father to the National Archives in Rio, and sat in the reading room and read science fiction while he read notarial documents... or whatever), the experience is really striking.
But the more I took in the storage area, the more remarkable it seemed. Some of the artifacts had been damaged in the attacks on Jews in 1938, and they'd never been repaired: you could still see the burn marks on some of the Torah covers. And the reason this collection exists is that the civilization that produced it was very nearly completely destroyed: Vienna in particular had one of the most prosperous and accomplished Jewish communities anywhere, and that world was eradicated almost overnight. The collection is a witness to that tragedy... and it exists in part because of it.
While it's described as a visible storage area, you can only see things on the outer shelves; the next shelves are faintly visible... but after that, objects recede into obscurity. Visibility shades into invisibility. You're aware of the objects, but just as aware of everything you can't see: tens of thousands of artifacts, boxes and boxes of material.
So the collection is visible and accessible, but at the same time what you can see reminds you of everything that's invisible and inaccessible; it's dedicated to preservation, but some of what's being preserved is a record of destruction. Like the practice of history itself, it demonstrates how we can examine and ponder the records of the past, but never really get to the people and age that made them. It's like a beloved person who's physically close, but firmly and permanently out of reach. All these ideas are stock in trade among historians trained in postmodernism, and I've known them for years; but I've never seen postmodernism put to so serious a purpose, nor its ideas used with such gravity and grace.
There are times when you're confronted with something so brilliant and devastating it's almost overwhelming. Maybe it was the combination of jet lag and overwork, but the brilliance of the idea of the visible archive, the amazing care that went into it, the seriousness with which it uses concepts about history and memory that too often are used for merely clever and sophistic purposes, and the history of the artifacts themselves, made this one of those times for me. For minutes I stood there, not daring to move, not wanting it to end, amazed at how perfect and piercing it all was.
I've got lots of pictures from today's wanderings around Vienna.
However, at this point I'm too tired to do anything with them besides put them up on Flickr.
The photoset is here. Commentary tomorrow some time.
Tonight outside IIASA's headquarters I saw the carnival rides that were being set up earlier this week. This time, they were in action.
It was delightfully surreal to see bumpers cars in this baroque square, and the kids were really enjoying themselves. There was a large tent with tables across from the rides, where parents could sit and drink beer. Though many of the riders were teens or adjults.
The scene was a little weird, but I'm sure stranger things have happened there, sometimes involving people wearing powdered wigs.
And given how quiet the town is, one cannot begrudge any entertainment....
Today was the second day of the conference on ubiquitous communication in an intelligent world. It was one of the most stimulating conferences I've been to in the last couple years, and that's saying a lot: but it was small, intimate, really well-supported, and aimed for a high level of cooperation and productivity. And it worked. Something I'm going to want to replicate.
We finished up in the afternoon, and a couple of us walked over to the Buda side of the city, then climbed up to the castle. We went over to the historic district, which I'd never been to, and took in the Hungarian Telecommunication Museum. Don't laugh. It was actually really interesting.
From there we walked through the castle, and made our way to the Elizabeth Bridge.
After crossing it, I headed back to the hotel, hung out for an hour, then went out to the Central European Cafe for dinner.
Apparently this was a place where a lot of the early Hungarian network theorists used to hang out and work, so naturally I had to go there.
After that I almost went back to my room and went to bed, but decided to go for a walk instead. As I was passing an outdoor cafe, I ran into one of my fellow workshop participants, and I talked him into coming with me to the Frank Zappa Cafe.
For those of you who don't know, Zappa was actually a pretty powerful influence in Eastern European countercultural circles: Vaclav Havel described him as "one of the gods of the Czech underground," and Radio Prague explains that
Frank Zappa's popularity in Prague is closely connected to the dark days of the dissident era, when his music and that of the Velvet Underground were blacklisted by the censors. For example, Frank Zappa's second album, Absolutely Free was smuggled into Czechoslovakia within a year of its 1967 release, and critics claim that the music influenced the famous Czech underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. Zappa's tunes thus came to represent freedom and independent thought to dissidents in Czechoslovakia. Reports have it that when young kids in communist Czechoslovakia played heavy rock music, the police would tell them to "turn off that Frank Zappa music."
So, in memory of Zappa and to celebrate the spread of democracy, we sat there and drank a substantial quantity of palinka. We agreed that the cherry was the most interesting, and plum was good but simpler.
After that I wasn't quite ready to go to bed, so I walked around some more, and found Raday Utca (where this blog's old banner was photographed). I discovered another cafe that looked promising, so I had a couple more drinks and did some writing. I figure so long as I get up tomorrow, I'll be fine: I can sleep on the train back to Vienna.
There's one in Menlo Park that I go to a lot.
Tonight I found another one in Budapest, on Raday Utca. Rather different, but still the same name (allowing for the fact that Hungarians, like Asians, put family names first).
Now I need to look for them in Vienna and London....
[To the tune of Wynton Marsalis, "Autumn Leaves," from the album Live at Blues Alley (Disc 2) (I give it 3 stars).]
We went to a village about 45 minutes outside the city, and had dinner at a traditional restaurant on the banks of the Danube. It was one of those dinners that started with grappa and palinka, proceeded to two wines with dinner, and something else afterwards. I haven't had this much to drink since Shrivenham.
Dinner was marvelous. I didn't go for the jumbo plate of wild boar and venison-- I didn't think my system could take anything quite that outrageously heavy-- but still it was excellent.
When we got back to the city, I decided I had to walk a little to get some of the alcohol out of my system. (For some reason I treat booze like going to the movies: after a couple hours, I'm ready to leave the state of inebriation, and if I can will either steam or walk it off.)
So I walked over to the river, and took in the view of the castle and Chain Bridge.
This is one of my favorite views in the whole world. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. It's not as a big or spectacular as the Singapore skyline or downtown Manhattan, but it's beautifully proportioned, and it's the sort of scene you can stare at for hours.
Eventually I walked back to the hotel, avoiding the main tourist streets.
This is one of the reasons I like coming to Budapest: the chance to spend time in buildings like this.
entrance to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, via flickr
I think of all the academies of science I've visited, this is the one that has the best location by far: on the banks of the Danube, right beside the Chain Bridge, with the castle, Parliament, and St. Stephen's all nearby. Really something.
And it's a beautifully-maintained building. The Hungarians take their science seriously.
Thursday night I arrived in Budapest, on the late train from Vienna. After a steady diet of Alan Furst I kind of expected something more distinctively Mitteleuropa, preferably viewed entirely in black and white; however, the real thing is a lot more Long Island Railroad or Great Western than old spy thriller.
Still, it did the job, and was very reliable.
I got to Budapest around 11. Even if the trains themselves were modern, the station was pleasingly turn of the century. Like any train station late at night, it had that slight air of fatigued menace. It may have been quite safe, but I just haven't spent enough time here to recognize the social cues.
Just before we reached the station I realized I had very little Hungarian money, so I had so spend a little time wandering around looking for either an open exchange bureau or an ATM, and trying not to go to the guys who were hanging around offering to change money. I remember using them regularly in Latin America when I was a kid, but these days-- I don't know, it seems too easy in the digital age to be legit. Eventually I did find an ATM, got some money, and grabbed a cab.
This was smart, because it turned out that the train station was a lot farther away from my hotel than I'd realized. I ended up getting to the hotel around midnight.
I'm in the Frankfurt airport, the closest thing the modern traveller can come to being in one of the factory scenes in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. (The happy ending is when you get to fly out of here.) This is one of the world's busiest airports, but I'm always impressed at how industrial and second-tier it feels: it's more like San Jose than San Francisco, the world's biggest business commuter airport. Even Heathrow in its old days (before Terminals 4 and 5) was nicer.
At least I'm in the Red Carpet Club. I've got a long layover between flights, so it's worth it to perch here for a little while. Though I confess whenever I'm allowed into one of these, I feel like the character in Sting's song "Take Me Dancing"-- that I'm the business equivalent of a poor boy in a rich man's car.
Which is kind of absurd, because for one thing I've put in plenty of miles and deserve to be here as much as they next person (who in this case is one a hundred thousand business travelers dressed today in white shirt and dark suit, sucking down Amstel Lights with a kind of blank determination). But more important, the fact is that this is only a privilege because the public spaces in most airports truly sucks. By comparison this feels nice, when it's really only human. And the free drinks are nice, but are a small reward for the amount of money and carbon the international traveler burns up before they're allowed in.
Yesterday was a pleasant, if somewhat hurried, start to the trip. I got into Philadelphia at 7 (and for once managed to get upgraded, escaping the rule that those regional upgrade award things are designed to make you feel like you could get something cool but also designed to be unusable-- sort of like health insurance for too many people), and spent a little time at Penn before heading downtown. Penn is pleasant, and has been on a steady upward slope for a while in terms of its safety and fresh-faced attractiveness, and I like visiting, but despite having spent some of the most intense and formative years of my life there, increasingly I feel removed from the place. It was central to my last round of self-fashioning-- intellectually I grew up there-- but I'm on to other things now.
From there I went downtown, checked in with my friends at Chemical Heritage Foundation, and then spent most of the rest of the day at Cosi, drinking coffee, working on my talk, and brainstorming with Darlene Cavalier about writing projects. Darlene is an interesting character, a former professional cheerleader turned science policy wonk and public engagement advocate. We've got an op-ed piece coming out in a magazine this fall, and are thinking about what we can work on next.
In the afternoon I gave a keynote talk at CHF's Innovation Day conference, then immediately bolted for the airport. I had a 7:30 flight, and was worried about getting stuck in traffic and security, but both were very smooth: there was virtually no traffic, and PHL has redesigned its security lines to be much more user-friendly.
After a brief layover in Dulles, it was on to Frankfurt. The flight was fine, though I didn't quite get to the level of intense, over-the-Atlantic creative thinking that's characterized some of my other travel; instead I slept more, and worked on business things. I just hope I can get in that mode on the flight home, because I've gotten a LOT of work done on planes, and would be bummed if my brain no longer responds to the combination of stimulus and lack of stimulus-- the prospect of being in another part of the world and facing the challenges of being on road, combined with the immediate reality of being sealed in a tube with only your thoughts and a couple hundred sleepy people-- that long plane flights provide.
I've got about three hours before my flight to Vienna. I think I'll see what the showers are like here.
Later. Feeling a lot more human after a longish shower. I've still got a couple hours until my flight, and I'm going to give myself a couple hours to navigate customs, get my boarding pass, etc.. I didn't put a change of clothes in my carry-on bag; maybe I should have, even though I'm pretty overloaded as it is.
One of the things I really enjoy about coming to Europe is the slight disorientation that comes from interacting with very ordinary, mundane things. Bathroom fixtures may be just different though to require you to think about how they work. Doorknobs may have different degrees of freedom than in America, and the auditory and tactile feedback is more pronounced. Signage is often clearer and more abstract. All in all, it requires you to think a little bit more about how things are made and why; they're material expressions of the fundamental contingency of our world. (On the other hand, dealing with customs agents and government bureaucracies isn't fun; if anything is amiss, you need a level of linguistic and cultural understanding that I usually don't have.)
I'll arrive in Vienna around 5:30 this afternoon, which means I should be in the city an hour or two later-- enough time to get checked into my hotel, then head out and find some dinner (something very light) and do some reading for tomorrow's conference.
The new Copenhagen Concert Hall.
KONCERTHUSET - K3NC241HUS4T, via Flickr
This building, along with the national library (the so-called "Black Rock"), suggests that the Danes now have a thing for extra-interesting cultural monuments. The New York Times writes,
Like Frank Gehry’s 2003 Disney Hall in Los Angeles and Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie, now under construction in Hamburg, Germany, Mr. Nouvel’s new hall demonstrates that an intimate musical experience and boldly imaginative architecture need not be in conflict — they can actually reinforce each other....
Approached along the main road from the historic city, the hall’s cobalt blue exterior has a temporal, ghostly quality. Its translucent fabric skin is stretched over a structural frame of steel beams and tension cables that resembles scaffolding. During the day you can see figures moving about inside, as well as the vague outline of the performance space, its curved form embedded in a matrix of foyers and offices.
It is in darkness that the building comes fully to life. A montage of video images is projected across the cube’s fabric surface at night, transforming it into an enormous light box. Drifting across the cube’s surfaces, the images range from concert performers and their instruments to fragments of form and color.
This is the intoxicating medium of late-capitalist culture. You can easily imagine boxes of detergent or adult chat-line numbers finding their way into the mix.
I'm relaxing this evening, as the second of the workshops, and the last of my formal obligations, are done for this trip. Two conferences, one conference paper, meetings with students, a workshop in Budapest, meetings with software developers, a workshop outside Vienna-- all are now done.
old and new media, via flickr
It's been a long trip, but it's been very productive. Several of us have learned how to integrate a digital mapping tool I've been playing around with into the workshops, and I have several ideas about how to make the process even more impressive-- how to add more screens and computers, bring some of the exercises closer to participants' lives, things like that.
One reason both workshops went off so well is that we had outstanding local support. In Budapest we worked with a think-tank named Ithaka, while here in Laxenburg we were hosted by the IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis). That made a huge difference, in terms of taking a lot of the weight off us for securing venues, dealing with local arrangements, recruiting people, etc. They know the territory, they have better local connections with intellectuals here, and a better sense of who would play well. In fact, basically all I did was show up and facilitate. I could get used to this.
Budapest, of course, is a place I fell in love with last year. Laxenburg turns out to be little more than an intensely picturesque village. But it's picturesque in the way that villages centered around old Hapsburg imperial hunting lodges are: the main attractions in are a modest, unassuming 30,000 square foot hunting lodge, and a several hundred acre hunting park (the elk are gone, but the riding trails are still well-maintained).
Actually, I'm probably lowballing the size of the lodge, given that there are a number of outbuildings, servants' quarters, church, etc. And I'm not sure if you count the parade grounds or not.
Tomorrow I've got one meeting, then will go up to Vienna, drop my bags at the airport link in the train station, and walk the Ringstrasse. I hear it takes about 4-5 hours, if you make lots of stops to take pictures, have coffee, and of course go to the Hotel Sacher for their famous torte (yes, that's where it comes from). I may fast between now and then, just to be sure I appreciate it.
I made it to my hotel, the Hotel Kalvin House. It may be the coolest hotel I've ever stayed in. Basically, imagine the abandoned building that Nexus 6 designer J. F. Sebastian lived in, turned into a central European pension. That's this place.
I got here a little after midnight, and got dropped off about half a block from the hotel. I walked down the street, and found the entrance-- a big wooden door, no porter, no big welcoming sign. After a little hunting around, I found an apartment buzzer; there were about a dozen buttons, all but one of them blank.
I buzzed, and the door unlocked. I walked in... to almost total darkness. After a few seconds, the motion sensor picked me up, and lights went on. There was a sign pointing to the left. I walked over, and there was a staircase surrounding a tiny elevator. The lights clicked off.
I took the elevator to the second floor, and got out. No signs directing me. After a minute, the door to my right opened, and the proprietor checked me in.
My room is on the top floor, essentially the attic. The decor is basic Scandinavian hotel modern, with a few more traditional central European touches. There's free wireless, which is very cool-- I was wondering about that, but happily it's becoming the standard these days.
I landed in Budapest just before midnight, breezed through Customs, and now I'm on my way into town. I arranged for a ride with an airport shuttle through Expedia, and so far the experience has been good. Of course, we're 10 minutes frmo the airport, so we'll see how things go from here.
We just passed a car with a DVD player built into the ceiling. I'm conditioned to seeing Pixar movies on those screens, and it seemed odd that kids would be out this late. As we passed, I got a second's glimpse. No kids in the car. The driver was watching it. And it's a porn video.
Welcome to Budapest.
The place seems darker than London, in terms of the amount of public lighting that's used (or available).
My Nokia N95 seems to be getting reception here fine. I bought a Vodaphone pay-as-you-go account, and I think I enabled the international calling feature, and though it's about $1.50 to connect a call when you're outside the UK, I think it's worth it if it helps me avoid problems. Plus, just being able to keep up with the family is a huge thing. I called home when I was in Heathrow, and chatted with the kids for a couple minutes; they're not very conversational on the phone, since they can't see themselves like on iChat or Skype, but still. I like being able to do it.
My Mac is seeing a steady stream of wifi signals as we drive along. It's pretty interesting. When I was here last, I was struck by how unwired the place is, even though I couldn't get a power converter on a Sunday to save my life.
On my last day in Budapest, Anthony and I dropped in on Kitchen Budapest, a new digital art / prototyping / cool new stuff place, sponsored by Magyar Telecom.
As I understand it, the company isn't looking to Kibu as a source of new products-- they don't have to create X number of prototype cell phones or products per quarter-- but instead as a source of inspiration, a place to see interesting things. Definitely nice work if you can get it!
The space isn't huge, but it's very pleasant, and has a nice buzz. It's on Raday utca, which is one of the hipper neighborhoods in the city-- sort of a paprika-dusted version of Williamsburg or SoMa-- and the building itself is a grand old stone pile. Inside, it's all open space and clean lines, but not antiseptic. They have a couple things that I hadn't seen before, but would like to get for the Institute, or just for my own home office. The black paneling on the columns, for example, is pressed wood with a magnetic laminate: presto, floor-to-ceiling magnetic boards. Very handy.
We had just enough time to see some demos of things they're working on. Two of them completely blew me away. The first is a mind-mapping or relational mapping program that's written in Flash. They call it Zui, because it's also a zooming browser: you can dive into an area, see new details, go deeper on some particular detail, etc., etc. (here's a demo).
The Institute makes a lot of maps, and so I'm always interested to see programs like these. What impressed me about this is that it's browser-accessible, and it's also offers a way to combine abstraction or high-level organization-- the top layer of the map-- with lots of interesting detail that reveals itself only when you call for it.
So that was very neat. But what blew me away was seeing it in combination with a touch-sensitive screen they've created.
The system consists of a glass screen with infrared sensors, backed with paper. Behind it is a projector that throws images on the screen, and a camera that watches what users are doing.
Put all the pieces together, and you have a system that lets you project a map, then move around it by using gestures.
They've also created a table version with a camera mounted above. What this let you do is put physical objects on top of the map-- say, a Post-it with some words, a photograph, etc.-- which the camera then records, and integrates into the map: in other words, put a physical object on the surface, and it's transformed into a digital object on the screen. Very, very cool.
I spent some time during my lat day at Budapest in Graphisoft Park, and technology park on the outskirts of the city. It was developed by Gabor Bojar, the founder of Graphisoft, first as a home for the company, and then as space for other tech companies: Microsoft, Apple, SAP, Canon, and now a couple biotech companies have buildings there.
The new biotech buildings are especially interesting from a purely architectural standpoint. It has some echoes of one of Mies van der Rohe's buildings, and I think the main entrance resembles Corbusier's church at Ronchamp. Anyway, it's a great space.
The site is on what was a glass factory, and there are still some very cool old buildings on the outskirts of the site. There's a clock tower that looks like something designed when the architect had gone slightly mad.
It also has a nice view of the Danube.
I'm packed, and heading to the airport in a few hours.
It's been a heck of a trip, and I'm sad to leave, but I'm also looking forward to going home.
Which, all things considered, strikes me as a very good combination.
[To the tune of U2, "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)," from the album "Achtung Baby".]
Went to dinner tonight with essentially the entire research staff of Ithaka, the group that organized today's conference.
We went to a basement place called Bor La Bor, which serves traditional Hungarian food. Giant appetizer platters, cutting boards instead of appetizer plates, then on to huge main courses.
I went with the beef with parsley dumplings, which was surprisingly delicious.
[To the tune of Tears For Fears, "Year Of The Knife," from the album "The Seeds Of Love".]
I'm having an espresso at Cafe Alibi, a lovely little place right around the corner from the hotel.
The conference went pretty well. Now it's off to dinner, then back to the hotel to do some work-- my day job marches along, after all-- and then to prepare for tomorrow, a mix of meetings during the day and evening Institute conference calls.
But for now, I'm just enjoying the sun going down, the lights coming on, and people going home.
After dinner I went over to the Frank Zappa cafe (which actually was quite nice) and spent some time working on tomorrow's talk.
I've been working on several different research lines relating to the future of science, and think I can put two of them together in a way that'll be pretty interesting to my Hungarian audience.
[To the tune of Stone Temple Pilots, "Interstate Love Song," from the album "Thank You".]
I got a charger. I found a little electronics store near the hotel, and they sold me an adapter that will work almost everywhere in the world. I think if aliens landed from Garzatron 6, this thing would have the right plug.
It's roughly the size of a paving stone, and doesn't weigh much less, so I think I'm going to leave it in the suitcase, so I'll always have one.
But I can't complain. I can now power up.
I'm still going over the Academy this afternoon to see if I can get my old one, though.
I had a meeting this morning, to go over arrangements for our conference tomorrow. Afterwards, I came back to the hotel, dropped off my jacket (it's warm today), and Anthony, Jamais and I went to a nearby cafe and restaurant, Central.
It's a very cool place: fairly new, but decorated in a lovely late imperial style. You can imagine sitting here and reading the latest critical review of the new Secessionist style bank, or trading gossip about the suicide of Prince Leopold. I'd passed by it a few times, and always meant to go in.
I had the Central European mixed grill, which was every form of meat that grazes, hunts or flies between the Baltic and the Adriatic, plus potatoes, sauerkraut, and pickles. I may be able to get up from the table. I haven't tried yet.
I spent the day playing tourist, going to the Royal Palace (now some very interesting museums) and the Gellert Baths. Both were great.
I also ran around a little looking for a power adapter for my laptop, as I left mine at the Academy of Sciences yesterday. I walked around to a couple electronics stores, but they were all closed; I even went back to the Academy, but the security guards blew me off.
It's interesting: I could have solved this in Singapore or Seoul in maybe 5 minutes, even on a Sunday morning. Singapore has several electronics stores on every block, while Budapest has cafes and leather goods stores in equal abundance. Tomorrow.
Every now and then I'll walk past something and think, oh why not poke my head inside. I come back out a few minutes later, thinking, I'll never forget that. This was one of those spaces: Parizsi Udvar, on the corner of Kigyo utca and Petofi Sandor utca.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
I'm a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Menlo Park, CA consulting and research firm. I also have two academic appointments: I'm a visitor at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University, and an Associate Fellow at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. (I also have profiles on Linked In, Google Scholar and Academia.edu.)
I began thinking seriously about contemplative computing in the winter of 2011 while a Visiting Researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research, Cambridge. I wanted to figure out how to design information technologies and user experiences that promote concentration and deep focused thinking, rather than distract you, fracture your attention, and make you feel dumb. You can read about it on my Contemplative Computing Blog.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It will also appear in Dutch and Russian.)
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction will appear in summer 2013, published by Little, Brown and Co.. (You can pre-order it through Amazon or IndieBound now, though!)
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
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PUBLISHED IN 2009