I was in Seattle this weekend at the POD Network conference, a conference of academic technology and professional development types.
I've not been in Seattle in a while, so it was cool to be there. And the crowd at the conference was terrific: very technically savvy, so they knew what I was talking about, but they could also ask interesting questions, and very engaged. Especially impressive for a crowd that had already been at the conference for three days and hadn't yet had lunch.
It was the first time I'd given a big talk since finishing the book, and it was good to see that it seems to hold up in public.
After my talk I spent the afternoon on the monorail (how often as a futurist do you get to ride on an artifact from the future?) and visiting the Experience Museum Project and Seattle Public Library, two of the cooler pieces of architecture... well, anywhere in the world.
The Experience Music Project is said to look like a melted Jimi Hendrix guitar from above; that could well be urban legend, but I do know is it's really cool on the ground.
To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest. Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed just 17 people on American soil, all but four of them victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood. (The other four were killed by lone-wolf assassins.) During that same period, 200 times as many Americans drowned in their bathtubs. Still more were killed by driving their cars into deer. The best memorial to the victims of 9/11, in Schneier’s view, would be to forget most of the “lessons” of 9/11. “It’s infuriating,” he said…. “We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”...
What the government should be doing is focusing on the terrorists when they are planning their plots. “That’s how the British caught the liquid bombers,” Schneier says. “They never got anywhere near the plane. That’s what you want—not catching them at the last minute as they try to board the flight.”
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.
We're now back in Cambridge, after a long and pleasant couple days in the West of England. I really enjoyed it, both as a tourist, and in my capacity as Mr. Contemplative Computing.
We got to Bath on Thursday afternoon, and decided to walk to the hotel. This turned out to be a good move, because Bath is A Small Place. The train station is beautifully well-situated, not in the middle of things but on a street that takes you straight to Bath Abbey and the center of town; a block further is the Pulteney Bridge, and our hotel was just a couple blocks from there.
So if you want to go to the University or see some of the more out-of-the-way gardens you need a cab or bus, but much of what you want to see if within a few square blocks: the Roman baths, the Abbey, the Crescent, Circle, even the Saracens' Head (a pub where Charles Dickens lived, and which shows off Britain's proud history of multiculturalism).
After checking into the guest house, we went to the Abbey, and walked around the city. I couldn't help but notice that Bath Abbey is a fantastic, majestic space (though with terrible acoustics, apparently), and it literally overshadows the Latter-Day Saints church and Quaker meeting house nearby.
We then had dinner at a little Italian pizza place. After that it was a drink at the Coeur de Lion, which advertised itself as the smallest pub in Bath.
We stayed at a little place called the Edgar Townhouse, on Great Pulteney Street. We got put in a basement room, which turned out to be fine, though it was cozy. But the breakfast was good.
Friday we went to Bristol for my talk. Bristol is only about 15 minutes away on the train, and the Watershed and other restored stuff is maybe 20 minutes from Temple Meads.
The docks and shipyard, which had connected this part of Britain with the rest of the world, closed in the 1960s and 1970s, and so for a long time large parts of the city were derelict; they've now been revived, with the mix of science, media, Cal-Mex and Japanese cuisine, tax forgiveness, and startup space that are essential for such New City enterprises.
We saw a little of it, but after my talk headed back to Bath in time to go to the Roman Baths, which I found REALLY cool. For one thing, it's like two exhibit spaces in one: there are the original Roman baths, which have been the subject of some elaborate archaeological excavations, and the Victorian improvements, which involved things like carving new statues of Julius Caesar.
Like the medieval Stockholm museum, or the Turku museum, this one takes you through the archaeological site, rather than just presenting you with exhibits from the dig; it's a style of presentation that I really like.
What was odder was seeing large numbers of fellow visitors listening to audio tours. It was a bit zombie-like, though I'm sure there are things they learned that I didn't. I'll have to go back to my Pevsner series volume on Bath to get caught up.
After that we had dinner at the Crystal Palace, a pub and restaurant just down the street from the baths.
I'm glad we got to see Bath on Thursday and Friday, because Saturday it was packed. Like Cambridge, the crowds are mad, with tons of people in the pedestrian-only shopping mall, cueing up for the Roman Baths and Pump Room, and generally being everywhere. Nonetheless, we made the best of it.
We spent part of the morning at the Jane Austen Centre, a house converted into a museum for Jane Austen fans. Though these days, it's really devoted to that version of Jane Austen that's filtered through the movies; so much so that Austen herself (as well as all her other characters) are in danger of being upstaged by Mr. Darcy-- in particular the Colin Firth version of Mr. Darcy. Actually, most of the museum is about Austen and Bath in her time; it's more the gift shop that has turned into the House of Firth. (The "I [Heart] Mr Darcy" bumper stickers and tote bags) nearly sent my wife over the edge.)
Bath's relationship to Jane Austen is emblematic of the mix of honest and commercialism that at their best English historical sites manage to strike. The message can be reduced to, "Jane Austen reluctantly came to his city with her elderly parents, and over the next five years, endured the loss of her beloved father, the decline of her family's status, constant marginalization in a city obsessed with wealth and fashion, and a creative drought that represents an incalculable loss given her short life. Don't forget to visit the gift shop!"
After that, we went to the Assembly Hall and the Fashion Museum. The Assembly Hall is a great space, featured in several scenes in Persasion (there really is NO escaping Jane Austen here-- I recognized several places, including the Assembly Hall, from the movies).
The Fashion Museum is fascinating, though perhaps for me not quite in the ways the creators meant. It's one of those museums where the curatorial and research work are not hidden away but are worked into the exhibits, which is something I always appreciate. And while I'm not hugely knowledgeable about fashion, though I'm not as dismissive about it as I used to be, I did find it educational.
I'm pretty sure the designers did not intend to invoke postmodern / dystopian anime, but in the exhibit on wedding gowns (thank you so much, Kate Middleton), I was seized by the memory of the cyborg factory shootout scene in Ghost in the Shell 2, and for the life of me could not get it out of my mind.
Being around historical exhibits doesn't usually make me want to be armed, but this did.
So it was an excellent time, but it's also nice to be back in Cambridge.
Tonight, while walking back from dinner, we were crossing the square outside Bath Abbey, and saw two ducks.
They looked like they were sightseeing. It was amusing.
We got into Bath this afternoon, and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the city, soaking in the Georgian excellence, and generally seeing things that Jane Austen would have seen. (Heather actually downloaded a Kindle copy of Persuasion, a large part of which is set in Bath.)
I've never been here before, and so find the whole place very interesting. Unlike New Orleans, which I expected to sustain a sophisticated Weimar-level decadence, or at least have vampires, but instead turned out to be an open-air fraternity party, Bath pretty much lives up to my expectations, which come entirely from Jane Austen movies.
We're on Great Pultney Avenue, in the... let's say garden level... of a row house. It's one of those grand Bath streets, which may get a mention in A Certain Author's Works. Anyway, from here it's a short walk to the center of town, over one of the few bridges that has shops built onto it.
Naturally we spent a little time in the Bath Abbey.
We also went to the Circle and Crescent.
Mainly we just walked around a lot, until eventually we found the local Topping & Co. (our beloved bookstore), then wandered to dinner at an Italian place.
From there, it was on to a pub for a pint, and back to the hotel.
Tomorrow morning we'll head to Bristol, do a little sight-seeing there, then head to the Watershed for my talk.
Off to Bath this morning, where Heather and I will spend the day. Then tomorrow it's a short ride to Bristol to give my talk.
I got the Pevsner architectural histories of both cities, but even though they're the size of a large travel guide they weigh a ton, thanks to the delicious heavy paper they use for all that four-color printing. So regretfully I left them at home, and will trust that I've either read enough of them to be at least minimally informed about where we're going, or can catch up when we get back.
Watershed is a cross-artform producer, sharing, developing and showcasing exemplary cultural ideas and talent. Curating ideas, spaces and talent, Watershed enables artistic visions and creative collaborations to flourish. Watershed is rooted in Bristol but places no boundaries on its imagination or desire to connect with artists and audiences in the wider world.
Clearly I'll need to shapen my goatee and choose the blackest clothing I can find!
Here's my abstract:
Can computers be contemplative? They interrupt and distract us, throw up swarms of real-time data that obscure our perspective and encourage us to spread our attention across a range of activities. In short, whatever their many benefits, computers don't encourage contemplation and users who seek to regain a sense of balance tend to turn off the wifi, fire up distraction-free Zenware or take digital Sabbaths.
Alex Pang argues that while these solutions offer temporary respites, they aren't solutions: better design is. He believes that we can create IT that does not distract us from the world, but allows us to engage with it more thoroughly, thoughtfully, and profoundly. In this Lunchtime Talk, he will describe what contemplative computing could be, why it is an appealing and achievable design goal and how we can get there.
Dr Alex Pang is a research fellow at Microsoft Research Cambridge, working in the Socio-Digital Systems group on contemplative computing. He is figuring 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.
Of course, the answer to the first question is, of course not. Computers can't be any more contemplative than fountain pens or bicycle tires. People can be contemplative. But, and this is the important part, people can be contempative with computers.
I'll be using the much-improved Prezi, which it turns out is now pushing the boundaries of what the technology can do. But in order to get the look I want for this talk, I needed to push.
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.
Today we went to Ely, which is about 15 minutes from Cambridge by train. It's a much smaller town, but has one of the most impressive cathedrals in Britain. (Heather's account of the visit is already up, and she has several pictures.) Since we went to evensong at King's College chapel-- which is one of the most remarkable examples of English Perpendicular architecture-- it was interesting to compare them.
We biked from our house to the train station, finally found a space in the bike parking area (which is nuts), and after many minutes in line, bought tickets. This was the first time I was using the electronic ticket kiosk and my local chip-and-pin card, and with a large line behind me, I just wanted to get through the transaction as quickly as possible; as a result, I bought two one-way tickets, but at least they were to the right place.
Thursday Heather flew into Heathrow, so I took the bus from Cambridge to the airport, and picked her up.
christ's pieces, via flickr
Most of the buses in Cambridge leave from the central station on Christ's Pieces, but the airport buses originate and terminate a couple blocks to the south, at Parker's Pieces. Fortunately, everything's reasonably well marked, and it's not too difficult to find the bus you need. (The Cambridge-to-Heathrow bus seems to be the 797, which also helps.)
After many months of proposals, preparation, visas, rallying parents, reassuring children, and wondering how elderly cats would handle it, I'm finally in England-- in Cambridge, starting my three-month visit at Microsoft Research.
I started last night, on the evening flight out of San Francisco, and ended around dinnertime, when I got into the flat (technically a terrace house, I think) we're subletting. About 18 hours all told, though none of it was really stressful: heavy yes, thanks to my having brought two suitcases (I am going to be here for three months, after all), but not really difficult. The bus even took me into downtown Cambridge, more or less, to the station on the edge of Parker's Piece, rather than the car and park on the edge of town (damn you, National Express Web site-- I could only buy a ticket as far as the Park and Ride on the edge of town, but the driver was fine about letting me go into city centre).
After I got things more or less sorted out I went out and wandered around the town a little. Naturally I headed for the town center, walking past St. John's and Gonville and Caius, then up along the market.
One of the things I read a lot about when I was researching weight loss is the physiology of hunger. On one hand, hunger is so simple, elemental and familiar at first blush it seems impossible that you could study it (much less learn to adjust it, which was my ultimate goal).
But one of the most important things i learned is that hunger is a psychological state as well as a physiological one: we can be distracted from hunger by excitement or fear, or conditioned to be hungry at particular times of day regardless of our blood sugar. We can be made hungry by proximity to foods with attractive smell, packaging, texture (what chefs and food designers call "mouthfeel"); we can be made hungry by foods that we've at a notable times, with friends, or in memorable and pleasant places. We misinterpret fatigue, stress, and thirst as hunger. Proximity to food, or the smell of something delicious, triggers hunger.
In fact, our appetite is so malleable it can be disconnected from a need for calories: in his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner David Kessler argues that food designers—manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants— have become geniuses at creating foods that are not just tasty, but so addictive they stimulate desire among people who are full. Further, obesity appears to have some of the same properties of a communicable disease: it is influenced by large environmental factors, as well as the influence of one's social circle.
Today, via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this piece by Peter Smith in Good about airline food, and research on the effects of airline environments on taste:
even under optimal conditions, cooked to the exact specifications of the latest celebrity chefs hired to reinvigorate flaccid airline fare, the taste of food changes when you’re inside a parched, hypobaric metal tube that’s vibrating and humming along at 550 miles per hour.
Recently, Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines conducted research inside a stationary Airbus A310 designed to replicate flying conditions. Deutche Welle reported that flyers said their taste buds felt dulled, requiring 20 percent more sugar and salt (explaining the particular appeal of V-8 or a Bloody Mary). In another study published this fall, British and Dutch researchers outfitted volunteers with headphones playing loud background noises and found that the noise made foods appear less salty and sweet. Loud noise did make crunchy foods appear crunchier—more Munchie Mix, anyone?
i'm staying at the Renaissance Orlando Resort, a rather large hotel somewhere on the SeaWorld campus.
It's fairly pleasant, a good venue for the Collaborative Innovations Forum that I'm attending. It's one of those hotels that has a gigantic indoor space, a central courtyard with a giant bar in the middle, and various things-- health club, Starbucks, etc.-- off it.
Not that I expect to get out of the hotel the next couple days-- the schedule tomorrow is pretty packed, and I fly home relatively early on Tuesday. So in an odd way, this is just the right kind of place to be.
I have to admit, after my unpleasant experience at the airport and general fatigue, I didn't expect to have a very good time at the reception, but it turned out to be a very stimulating time. There are some very interesting, very intelligent people here.
I'm in a cab from the Orlando airport to my hotel. I was supposed to be on the Mears airport shuttle... two hours ago... but apparently the challenge of taking a list of prepaid reservations, and calculating how many buses you'll need to take people to places, is too much for them. So after 90 minutes of waiting around, and watching the dispatchers try to conjure more shuttles out of thin air and deal with an ever-increasing crowd, I threw in the towel, and headed for the cab line.
I don't know what is responsible for it, but airport shuttle services seem to display all the problems you can imagine with captive markets. Once they have your money, they seem have very little incentive to actually get you where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time; Mears seemed to just not know how to get enough shuttles, as they were borrowing cabs (which I saw were actually owned by the Mears transportation group, so it was kind of all in the family). But this is not a problem specific to this company: I've had mediocre to bad experiences in all kinds of cities. Nonetheless, this seemed extreme.
Florida, meanwhile, has that unstable, holographic feel that I always have when I go to Arizona: that this is a place where you people probably really shouldn't live, and may not be inhabitable in another 50 years. Maybe there's something in the air after the housing crash-- it's a kind of post-speculative prick in the bubble of reality. But flying over the state, it looked to me like most of the place was kind of semi-liquid, as if earth existed here in a state of matter unknown anywhere else in the U.S. While Arizona felt so dry as to be unable to sustain human life (especially millions of air-conditioned retirees, college students, and porn stars), Florida feels like it could just melt back into the Gulf.
Of course, living in the Bay Area as I do, I'm not being critical of the place, so much as recognizing another unstable but over-designed environment. Should make for an interesting couple days....
For six weeks I made my way through England, France, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the US without carrying so much as a man-purse or a bum-bag. The few items I did bring (including a toothbrush, an iPod, and a few extra items of clothing) were tucked away in my pockets. Along the way I learned a thing or two about improvisation, hygiene, and what is and isn't necessary when travelling the world....
In addition to the clothes on my back (cargo pants, boots, socks/underwear, T-shirt) I brought a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste, a small deodorant stick, two small bottles of concentrated liquid soap, sunglasses, a small tube of sunscreen, an iPod touch and foldable Bluetooth keyboard, a small digital camera, a small flashlight, a credit/cash card, and my passport. All of these items fitted, along with a change of socks, underwear, and T-shirt, into the inner pockets of a jacket/vest. All told, my total kit weighed less than two kilos.
I love the idea of being able to go around the world with nothing more that what I can carry in my (many, oversized, secret) pockets. I try to pack light, and the idea that a trip with no bags would be a life entirely unencumbered naturally appeals to me. Of course, it appeals in much the same way the country appeals to urban dwellers: as an idealized opposite whose simplicity you believe would be spiritually clarifying. In reality, I probably wouldn't find it so great, and as Potts himself says elsewhere,
travel anywhere is often a matter of exploring half-understood desires. Sometimes, those desires lead you in new and wonderful directions; other times, you wind up trying to understand just what it was you desired in the first place. And, as often as not, you find yourself playing the role of charlatan as you explore the hazy frontier between where you are, who you are, and who it is you might want to be.
Heather and I are in San Francisco tonight, for tomorrow's Nike Women's Marathon. Heather's running the half, and I'm essentially packing up the room, bringing the car to the finish line, and meeting up with the kids.
We're staying at a place called Hotel Frank, which is a renovated old hotel a couple blocks from Union Station-- quite a bit closer to the starting line than the Metropolis, the Frank's sister hotel where we'd originally booked a room. When we got there it turned out they were overbooked, and since they're on the edge of the Tenderloin, we were happy to move, since the race starts at Union Station.
The rooms are quite pleasant, nicer even than the Diva, where we stayed before last year's NWM.
hotel frank, via flickr
After we got registered and picked up the race packet, we went to the Team in Training dinner, a raucous and ethnographically fascinating affair. It's about 4000 people, and it fills Moscone Center South; teams from around the country are there; and the overall effect is part political convention, part tent revival, and part industry trade show (you can never quite ignore where you are). I always feel a bit odd eating there, given that San Francisco has one of the greatest restaurant scenes in the world, but in many ways it's a more interesting experience than dinner at a nice sushi place.
Tomorrow it's up at 4, with a 5 am start time. In other words, Very Early.
When I'm not working on my current project (I suspect that "WTF Do Clients Really Do With Scenarios?" won't make the cut at a peer-reviewed journal, so I need to start thinking of a different name, or a version with less cursing), I'm starting to deal with logistics for the trip to Cambridge. Indeed, I'm beginning to suspect that I'll need as many months to complete the paperwork as I'll actually spend doing research. But it'll be worth it.
I'm also starting to wonder how I should write about the trip. Of course there's no question that I'll at least keep the blog going, and maybe try to wring some piece of travel writing out of the trip (something about journeying through high-tech England? scientific England? frankly, it'll be whatever the assignment editor wants), but I don't want to sound like a typical American mystified by, but ultimately won over by the cultivated charms and sophistication of Europe; I suppose James Watson's Double Helix is as good a model as any for writing about doing research in Cambridge... but there are probably other literary stereotypes I want to be aware of and avoid. I was made sensitive about this by a fabulous series of four short essays (inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s "How to Write About Africa") about How to Write About Pakistan, of which this one (by Daniyal Mueenuddin) is my favorite:
Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.
When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand....
It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.
I made it to Singapore in one piece, with all my stuff-- I love Singapore Airlines, I truly do-- and am now in my dad's apartment. After 20 hours flying, I cannot begin to describe the psychic dislocation that comes from being in a gated community called the Caribbean that is popular with expat Australians and Americans.
On the other hand, I hear that the Olympic-sized pool and weight rooms are world class, and the steam bath is not to be missed. So I plan to stretch and lift and cardio all the food that the flight attendants kept trying to serve me. I said no to a lot, but the problem is, when you're being offered things like tuna sashimi, chilean sea bass, and lamb satay, it's easy to rationalize having just one. And maybe just another one.
As I mentioned, I got a business class ticket for this trip. Singapore Air's economy service is pretty notoriously good, and the business class is outrageous. This is my seat (and yes, I did have to use Photo Stitch to capture the whole thing):
However, much as I appreciate the luxury, I find myself a bit disquieted. The crew seems much-better mannered, and more knowledgeable about etiquette, than me. Whenever they serve something, they rearrange my tray, put things back in their place, and generally return everything to the Approved Ground State.
As a result, I approach every interaction with them with a little anxiety. Will I live up to the steward's expectations? Will I put the dinner roll on the wrong plate?
Stopping in Incheon to refuel and change crews. I'm hanging out in the Asiana lounge, which is very nice. Naturally I was drawn to the "library."
The hilarious thing about it is that the entire library consists of these three books:
Not that I'm complaining. I mean, the logic of repeatable elements and mass production is adopted in lots of good interior design, why not book titles?
Back on to the plane in a few minutes, thence to Singapore!
I'm in the Singapore Air lounge at SFO, on my way to Singapore and Malaysia. I'm spending a day with my dad and stepmother in Singapore (after 40 years as a professor in the US, Pop decided it was time for a new career challenge, and so took a gig in Asia), then on to Malaysia, where I'll speak at a futures conference. I wrote an article [pdf] about the futures scene in Malaysia a year ago (it's one of the most forward-looking countries in the world), and some of what I talked about is starting to brew. It'll be interesting to see it first-hand.
This is an insane trip. My wife had to get up at 4:30 for the San Francisco Marathon, and the kids and I ran the 5K this morning, so we all bundled into the car before dawn, and fought out way to the Embarcadero. Miraculously I found street parking.
The kids enjoyed the 5k, though I think for them it's not the running that they'll remember but the number and variety of snacks, samples, juices, and smoothies that they were able to try at the end. When you're 8 pain is temporary, but the memory of getting a Jamba Juice from a guy in a banana suit is forever.
Then it was back in the minivan, across town to Golden Gate Park, and to the finish line for the half marathon. We got there a minute after she finished, got some food, then headed back to the car and to SFO. Dropped me off, into the loving embrace of Singapore Air.
There are times when you're made very aware of just how much your family makes your life possible. Exactly two months ago I was in London and Cambridge; now I'm headed to the other side of the world. Most spouses who have to deal with such schedules or who find themselves married to travel addicts take to drink. Next time, she comes with me. The kids have also adjusted well to having a parent away (heaven knows they've had plenty of experience), but I think it's time to take it to the next level. They can find us on Facebook if they need instructions about how to use the stove.
I'll be in Malaysia until Friday, then I fly back here, and the next day turn around and head for another gig in the Rockies. When it rains it pours.
Naturally I've got the mobile version of my life set up. And now that I have a 500 gb hard drive, I can carry pretty much my entire movie collection with me. Not like I need the distraction. It's just nice to have. I think many travelers have one indulgence of this sort: my dad carries five times as many ties as he could possibly need, other people carry books, yet others pack extra clothes.
In many ways I love Singapore Air, but the one complaint I have about them is the absence of common space: on SAS or United you can get up and stand, which is essential for my sanity; Singapore doesn't really have any public space, and they're happiest if you're just confined to your seat the whole 20 hours. This time, my patrons have put me in business class, which means I essentially have my own cabin. My hope is I can do some calisthenics in it without disturbing other passengers. Seriously.
Of course, as always, the main attraction for this kind of trip is the chance to get some serious thinking and writing done. I need to work more on my talk, but I'm also going to try to finish "Paper Spaces 2: Revenge of the Fallen" before I return home. I've really got all the material I need to get it done, and I can only re-watch Mission Impossible 3 so many times in one 24-hour period.
Friday Heather and I drove from Menlo Park to Mendocino. We had to pick up the kids from Camp Winnarainbow on Saturday, and decided not to do the usual barrel-up-101-that-morning thing. After two weeks of freedom, we were enjoying being adults a little too much. So instead of going inland, we took Highway 1, which runs along the northern coast. I hadn't been on Hwy 1 since I was a kid-- my dad quite liked driving roads like that when I was young and he had a Mustang-- and I'd heard good things about it.
the coast, via flickr
Highway 1 along is beautiful, though a lot of it is terrain you'd look at, not walk around. The cliffs can be pretty sheer, and the tide looks treacherous. (I wonder how close you can get to the rocks on an ocean kayak.) It was pretty foggy on Friday, but that didn't make the drive less interesting: the fog was often driven across the road by pretty high winds, so that only added to the drama of the landscape.
We stopped at Fort Ross, a Russian fort built in the early 19th century to supply the Russian settlement in Alaska.
fort ross, via flickr
It wasn't much of a success, and eventually was sold to Sutter in 1841 (who given the extent of his involvement in colonial California real estate really should have died incredibly wealthy). As the state Web site says,
Fort Ross was the southernmost settlement in the Russian colonization of the North American continent, and was established as an agricultural base to supply Alaska. It was the site of California's first windmills and shipbuilding, and Russian scientists were among the first to record California’s cultural and natural history. Fort Ross was a successfully functioning multi-cultural settlement for some thirty years. Settlers included Russians, Native Alaskans and Californians, and Creoles (individuals of mixed Russian and native ancestry.)
The fort is a mix of original and reconstructed buildings, and if you go for that sort of thing, is well worth the visit. The park nearby is also excellent: the coast is rugged, and there are sea lions on some of the rocks.
fort ross, via flickr
From there, we drove up to the town of Mendocino, and got checked into the Mendocino Hotel and Garden Court, a hotel opened in 1878. It was recently renovated, and looks very 19th century.
mendocino hotel, via flickr
The hotel has several restaurants, including one that's kind of taken over the main reception area; but you can still sit there and relax.
mendocino hotel, via flickr
Mendocino is a tiny town, with a disproportionate number of art galleries, boutiques selling earth-toned natural fiber clothes meant to be worn by willowy middle-aged women possessing tasteful collections of silver Navajo jewelry, and restaurants that range from the outrageously expensive to the strictly organic, with nothing in between. Heather thought it would make a fine place to spend a weekend, but after that it might get a little dull. After she shared this with a friend who lived there, he said, "Yeah, the first three days are fine, and then there are the next two and half years."
With our local dining choices reduced to "if you have to ask you can't afford it" foie gras or gluten-free, we chose the latter. After a little wandering around, we found Frankie's, an excellent pizza and ice cream place. It was extremely friendly, the sort of place where the kids are playing under the tables while parents sing a long with the folk songs.
frankie's, via flickr
We chose the Navarro pizza (chicken and carmelized onions), and I got an organic porter (my nerves felt a little jangly after driving). Both were excellent.
navarro and porter, via flickr
After that, I tried the candy cap mushroom ice cream. Candy cap mushrooms are a local delicacy, a mushroom that has a very sweet, almost maple syrup flavor.
candy cap mushroom, via flickr
It made an interesting ice cream, though I don't think mint chocolate chip has to worry about competition.
The next morning we had breakfast at Thanksgiving Coffee Co., another organic local place. From what I could tell of the scene that morning, and the vast number of flyers on the cafe wall, it seemed to me that for all its tourist orientation, the town does also have a nice degree of local culture and community.
the breakfast rush in mendocino, via flickr
The scones and Danish were excellent.
danish and scone, via flickr
After we finished them, we headed off to Winnarainbow, and back to parenthood.
Jonah Lehrer explains it.
The last few times I've been in London, I've stayed either at Goodenough Club, hotels near Westminster, or a various little places in South Kensington. This time I'm staying at the Millennium Hotel, on Grosvenor Square.
Grosvenor Square is a fascinatingly American space-- but not American in the sense of filled with American stores and food. That's Leicester Square. (Wham!) Instead, it's a space that's a monument to the U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship, and American involvement in Europe more generally. Obviously the U.S. Embassy is here, but the square itself is where the real action is.
There are statues of Roosevelt (above) and Eisenhower (the latter looking especially... distinguished? powerful? gay? I'm not sure), and a monument to the Eagle Squadron, American pilots who served with the RAF before 1942.
Across the street from the square is a plaque commemorating John Adams' having... lived here or something.
My hotel room is pretty cool-- well-designed and spacious.
My bags immediately made themselves comfortable.
Of course, in a hotel on one of the great situations in London, I have a view of... the infrastructure.
But that's cool. I'm hardly here anyway.
I know I didn't get a lot of sleep on the plane, but I usually don't hallucinate from fatigue. I started to wonder when I saw this:
Turns out there are elephants everywhere in London now. They're in Berkeley Square...
...along the Embankment...
...and just about everywhere else. Obviously it's part of a big art / environmental project.
[To the tune of Django Reinhardt, "DJangology," from the album The Best of DJango Reinhardt (a 1-star song, imo).]
After I slept for a few hours-- the hotel was able to give me early check-in, bless them-- I had a shower, got some coffee at the nearby Starbucks, then took the Tube to St. Pauls.
From there I walked across London Bridge, and back along the Embankment toward the Eye.
I'm not the only one who had the idea. There were LOTS of people out, in contrast to the rest of the city, which seemed kind of deserted thanks to the bank holiday.
I stopped in the Globe (I gave a talk there a few years ago, which was one of the highlights of my life at the Institute), and bought the kids t-shirts that say "Something wicked this way comes." I thought about one that said "Out out damned spot" that looked like it was splattered with blood (they also had tea towels) but thought better of it.
I then went to the Tate Modern for a while. It's an awesome space, truly incredible. I also stocked up on my postcard collection.
From there, it was down to the Eye. It was too cloudy to be worth going on it (I'm hopeful that Wednesday night will be nice), but I wanted to replace a bottle opener that I bought there a couple years ago and lost. Alas, it was not to be.
Then it was across the bridge and to dinner.
I'm on my way to England for a few days. A bit of a whirlwind trip, but I expect it'll be productive.
Loaded up my Tube map and National Rail schedule on my iPhone. The new travel practice: adjusting your collection of apps.
More from England.
This morning we went sledding at Granlibakken, a resort on the California side of Tahoe. (It seems to be going through an identity crisis: its singularly uninformative Web site describes it as a conference center and lodge, but the big sign at the entrance calls it a ski and racquet sports center.) We often go sledding on the last day of our trips to Tahoe.
At first I figured I had given my backside enough of a workout snowboarding for two days, but after it looked like my daughter was getting cold feet, I got a saucer and joined them. As soon as I reached the top of the hill, she took off. (Mission accomplished.)
After a couple hours we stopped for lunch, then did a couple more runs before getting on the road again.
The drive was as pleasant as it can be, when the traffic is heavy and there's the usual mix of alpha male professionals who seem to believe that the Lexus LX 470 will turn into a pumpkin if it's back in the garage of their faux Craftsman before 6 p.m., amped-up young men in 1988 Celicas who treat I-80 as a place to practice their mad Super Mario Kart skillz, and large trucks.
Taken by Heather-- I don't drive and self-portrait!
What makes it redeemable is that parts of 80 are stunningly beautiful: obviously Tahoe and the Sierras are great, but I find the hills and ranch land around Fairfield to be singularly magnificent, especially in the 10 minutes of springtime when they're green. I find the mall-ization of large parts of 80 disturbing: even I can remember in the mid-1990s commuting from Berkeley to Davis, and driving past large sections of farmland and orchards, much of which have now been "developed" into retail or apartments. It's a trend that doesn't feel sustainable, in the various senses of the word.
The family at Diamond Peak.
What impresses me most is that it's a good picture of my son, who normally manages to be looking away from the camera or doing bunny ears when the rest of us look okay.
And how my daughter came to channel Anna Wintour is beyond me. It must be all that Project Runway.
Last week I went to Oxford for a few days. I was giving a talk and had to be back for my daughter's school play, so it was just a quick trip. I hope to make it back for a longer trip before too long.
Fortunately, Oxford was no longer buried under the show-stopping two inches of snow that has assaulted the nation the week before. By the time I got there the place was back to normal, so I was able to get around without any trouble.
Oxford, via flickr
I arrived on Sunday afternoon, worked on my talk for most of the day, then went to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner and walked around afterwards. The restaurant was great, and doubtless I'll go back there, but it has a bit of an Eastern Promises feel to it: I got the sense that there were plenty of things going on besides grilling lamb and making hummus (which was excellent, don't get me wrong).
excellent hummus, via flickr
And I was by the far the least swarthy person in the restaurant, which for me is an unusual state of affairs.
I stayed at the Royal Oxford, which was fine as always, though my room looked out at the central courtyard and the ventilation system was about two feet away from my window. But it was a pretty big room, so I guess it was an acceptable trade-off. My feelings about the bathroom design still hold, though: they fell down on the job during the renovation, made the bathtubs too tall, and made it hard to get in an out in a way that feels safe.
Monday was work, so after breakfast I spent most of the rest of the day actually doing what I went there to do. Monday night I had dinner at a rather nice French restaurant in Jericho, one of the neighborhoods of Oxford. I met up with David Orrell, the author of The Future of Everything and someone whose work I find quite interesting.
When I looked it up, it sounded like Jericho was a suburb of Oxford, and I imagined having to take a bus out there; but it turns out to be about a 5-minute walk from the center of town to the edge of the neighborhood. Apparently it started out as a working-class area (Oxford was actually a manufacturing center for a long time, in addition to being a university town), and recently has been gentrified.
Brasserie Blanc, via flickr
Orrell is a very interesting character, a physicist who did some really interesting work on model error in meteorology, and now works in synthetic biology. We spent a couple hours at dinner, talking about prediction, futures, computer and mathematical models, and economics. One of the more interesting things he talked about was how simple models often do a poorer job of explaining the past than elaborate models (that to some degree are tailored to fit historical data), but do a better job of predicting the future. I've been turning over in my mind whether it's possible to apply this to the kind of futures that I do. I'm usually sensitive to the complexity and contingency of human action and decisions, and that tends to make me assume that you can't simply model human behavior in a usefully predictive way-- that people's interactions with scientific ideas and technologies aren't quantifiable and computationally tractable.
Maybe this observation helps explain Bruce Bueno De Mesquita's success. His method does well because of its formality and relative simplicity: he claims to be able to predict the outcomes of political negotiations or corporate power struggles with a pretty limited, specific amount of information. Of course, he also succeeds because he recognizes the limits of his model, and doesn't push it into areas where it seems likely to fail. I'd like to think that there are no good models for predicting scientific and technological change because they're too complex. But maybe I'm not looking hard enough for the simplicity.
I don't know if I'm on a lucky streak, or if I tend to gravitate unconsciously to books written by pleasant and generous people instead of self-righteous jerks-- Andrew Parker was really a great person to have breakfast with-- but David maintained my streak of having interesting meals with people I basically cold call when I'm in Europe. One of the virtues of being American is that you can deploy a level of extroversion (or intrusiveness) when you travel and, so long as you don't go overboard with it, people will forgive you for it. (I suspect that one of the keys to living abroad is figuring out when you really have to fit it with the local culture, and when you can get away with things because of Where You're From.)
Oxford, via flickr
After dinner I walked around a little, as is my custom when I'm on the road; but since I had to pack and be up very early to catch the bus to Heathrow, I decided not to stop at any of the fifty or so pubs I've passed that inspired a "oh that looks good, I'll have to have a drink there sometime" reaction. Next time. And the time after that.
Tuesday morning I was up at a punishingly early hour to get home. I've gotten in the habit of falling asleep to movies or music when I travel, and tonight for some reason had on a playlist of Michael Mann movies; so I drifted in and out of sleep to the sound of gunfire and vague apprehension of beautifully-illuminated but sinister cityscapes. Then I got the X70 bus to Heathrow, had breakfast in the Red Carpet Club, and got on my plane.
Oxford, via flickr
I'm in San Francisco International Airport, on my way to London. A lamentably quick trip, but always exciting to get across the pond.
For some reason the check-in line is REALLY slow. Fortunately I'm here with plenty of time.
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are. (Samuel Johnson)
h/t to Jessica Goodman's Feeling Elephants
Jessica Grose on what's wrong with Foursquare:
The major limit to Foursquare’s widespread appeal is what differentiates it from the other location-based apps—game mechanics, which have limited appeal to older users (it should be noted that competitor Loopt has recently acquired similar gaming technology). With Foursquare, you get badges based on participation, and you can compete for badges with your friends. If you “check in” to a particular location often enough on Foursquare, you become “mayor” of that location. If you check in four nights in a row, you get a “bender” badge, and so on. Though hyper-social twentysomethings in cities with endless options may enjoy competing with their friends for the “player please” or “douchebag” badges, the reward system does not hold much for anyone older. “I don’t get any real thrill from the gaming aspect,” one thirtysomething, New York-based Foursquare user told me. “All the badges seemed aimed to a young, single dude,” said another.
Another limitation of Foursquare’s appeal is that users are rewarded—“given pieces of digital candy,” in the words of co-founder Dennis Crowley—for seeking out new venues and experiences as much as possible. This is only valuable in enormous markets like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where there are constantly new restaurants, events, and bars to patronize.
For a continent that's pioneered social democracy, good industrial design, and a generally above-average interest in social welfare, Europe seems to have some of the most dangerous bathrooms in the world. Let me give two examples, both from hotels that otherwise I thought were very good.
First is from my hotel in Vienna, which is in the center of the city, blocks from Stephensplatz, on a nice square, etc.. The main thing going on here is that the absence of a shower curtain-- just the half-wall glass thing-- seriously raises the odds that I'm going to get water everywhere, and then slip and break something.
k&k hotel, vienna, via flickr
The Royal Oxford is even trickier. I love the hotel in every other respect, but the bathroom is tiny, it's got the half-glass wall thing, and the bathtub is really high. Now normally I like deep tubs, but when it makes it hard to keep your balance in what's likely to be a slippery environment, I'm less of a fan.
royal oxford hotel, via flickr
Maybe people in the rest of the world can handle this kind of thing fine. Maybe shower curtains are the equivalent of Humvees with spinning rims-- unnecessary, wasteful, and uniquely American. Or perhaps the dangerous bathroom is like Europe's architectural equivalent of Inspector Clouseau's butler, Kato: by constantly trying to kill him, Kato helped keep Clouseau alert and in shape. Of course, it didn't go Clouseau's apartment much good....
When Jonathan and I were walking to dinner Thursday night, we saw two guys going into the window of a townhouse.
As you can see, the guys are trying to get into an upper-story window, and the ladder isn't tall enough. So they have the bottom of it balanced on the wrought-iron fence, and the top of it against the wall of the building.
Part of me thought "Darwin Award," but maybe when you live in England you're taught that balancing ladders on wrought-iron fences is the safe way to work. And the guy made it in, so it worked.
Plus, the guys looked old enough to have been doing this for a long time. If they could survive the Blitz, they're entitled to balance ladders on fences to make it easier to climb through upper-story windows.
Early Friday morning I made a quick visit to the Natural History Museum. I needed to get out to the airport to catch my flight, but I had a chance to meet Andrew Parker, a zoologist whose book on vision and evolution (In the Blink of An Eye) is a favorite of mine. Since the hotel I was staying at was pretty close to the museum, I was able to squeeze in a quick meeting.
We were meeting well before the museum opened to the public, so I had the rare experience of seeing the main hall when it was completely empty.
It was as cool as seeing the NYPL's reading room when it was empty.
The research wing and rooftop lounge is also pretty nice.
Parker has a new book out called The Genesis Enigma, about the scientific accuracy of the book of Genesis. It's gotten mixed reviews in the UK-- Dawkins and the scientific atheist crowd don't like it for obvious reasons-- and it'll be interesting to see what reception it gets in the U.S.
This won't be exciting to anyone but historians of science, but yesterday when I was at the Natural History Museum, I noticed something new. The statue of Richard Owen that had been on the landing of the grand staircase had been replaced by Charles Darwin.
Here's Owen in 2005:
And Darwin now:
Nothing at all symbolic about the swap, of course.
Yesterday started in Oxford, with coffee at Blackwells and then a get-together with Alison Powell of the Oxford Internet Institute. She showed me a rather good coffee place near the bus terminus, which was handy, and we had an interesting talk about mobile devices, DIY, and social action. (Actually, I suppose the day really started the night before, and a globe-hopping friend just back from California and I got together around midnight to talk about the future of naval strategy. Still, that felt like Thursday.)
Unfortunately, I had to leave before too long, to catch the train down to London and meet with some people in the UK government who do foresight and scanning.
After that, I met up with Jonathan Liebenau, a professor at LSE who was a number of years ahead of me at Penn, and whose dissertation I saw on the alumni bookshelf a thousand times, but who I only met a couple years ago. We got together at the Adam & Eve, a pub right beside the St. James' Tube station.
From there we had a long wander around town, until we finally reached an Indian restaurant in Pimlico called The Akbar. It was a terrific place. Naturally, I had to try the Bollywood Blast!, a lamb dish advertised as using the hottest chilies on the planet.
There's a scene in The Simpsons where Apu makes dinner for the Simpson family, and after the first bite Marge asks Lisa if it's too spicy for her. Lisa, a distant look on her face, says dreamily, "I can see through time." That's kind of how I felt while eating the lamb. It was intense, but very good.
After dinner we walked over to the Embankment, parted near the Tate, and I continued on to my usual walk to the Jubilee Bridges.
It was an especially pleasant night, cool and clear, and lots of people were out. Because I was coming from Pimlico, I saw a part of the river I'd never seen before, and also came up on Westminster from a new angle.
I also noticed-- and I don't know if this is a new thing-- a lot of people bicycling home. London had never struck me as a place where you could bicycle safely, but I suppose it is.
This part of London is one of my favorites for walking. It's big-- you end up easily walking several miles-- but it offers a lot, and it's the kind of walking that's pleasantly distracting.
You don't really notice how many miles you're putting in because you're too distracted by the London Eye, and then the cool bridges, and is that St. Paul's just around the bend, and before you know it you're at the Globe.
I didn't quite get to the Globe last night; having started near the old power station (the one that's on a Pink Floyd album), I had had my fill by the time I got to Waterloo (kind of like Napoleon), so I caught the Tube back to Kensington.
I'm staying at the Cromwell Crown Hotel, one of a thousand-- or maybe ten thousand-- hotels in Kensington. The place is... well, exactly what you'd expect for 45 pounds a night in one of the world's most expensive cities: tiny, and kind of uncertain in its basic cleanliness (not that they don't clean it and change the sheets, but a place this old and unrenovated never has the feeling of being pristine).
I won't say it's badly decorated, because that would suggest that someone made wrong choices about the bedding and carpet: this looks like it was chosen by someone blind. All in all, it has the feeling of a two-star hotel in a provincial town that's passed back and forth between the rebels and government forces about twenty times in the civil war.
However, it's pretty much exactly what I expected, and when I travel i tend not to spend much time in my room: I would be okay with a Japanese coffin hotel most of the time (or even better yet, some Provigil and a vibrant all-night cafe that also had showers and secure lockers for your clothes-- or maybe something more like a club). That would actually be an interesting design exercise....
Last night I met up with a friend of mine from Saïd, a recent MBA who's still living here in Oxford. I supervised a project when he was a student here, and we've kept in touch off and on since then. The last time we went out drinking I came up with some of the essential ideas in my Future 2.0 argument, so I had high expectations for our get-together.
We started out with a couple pints in the Oxford Retreat, a nice and relatively quiet pub just up the road from my hotel. It overlooks the stream, so it's a great location, but it's not popular with (as one of my friends puts it) the students who come here to learn English and have sex; so it was a good place to talk.
I'm not sure what's happened to me, but in the last few months my relationship with alcohol has changed significantly. Until recently one drink would more or less put me out; but now, with my jumped-up metabolism (or something), I can drink a lot more, and not have it floor me. Not that I plan to start heavy recreational drinking; but it's always useful when your limits turn out ot be farther away than they used to be, especially when you're on the road and seeing lots of people, a disproportionate number of whom will propose a drink, toast, another bottle of wine, etc..
see-- i was working! via flickr
From there we went to the Eagle and Child. For those of you who don't know, the E & C was where J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and I believe T. S. Eliot hung out (I'm sure about the first two). It's right across the street from Balliol and St. John's, so it's pretty centrally located. At first, I couldn't believe I was hearing the name of the place right-- the friend I was drinking with is from Latin America, so I thought his accent could be getting in my way. But in fact, it is the Eagle and Child, and the pub's sign does have an eagle bearing away a swaddled baby.
a picture is worth a thousand words, via flickr
We had a couple more pints here, and I ordered some dinner.
Originally I was going to go with the fish and chips, but after looking at the menu I decided to order the Game Pie. When it arrived, I asked the waiter what kind of game it was; I could imagine a big tin of something just labeled "game" in the back. He said, "Tonight sir, we're serving Monopoly."
Served me right for asking, I guess.
After that I walked around to clear my head and take pictures. If I could be drunk for an hour, then switch it off, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic about alcohol. But the fact that I need to essentially engage in an exercise regimen or take a hot bath to clear my head puts an upper limit on how much I'll ever enjoy it. Which is just as well. I've been addicted to enough things in the course of my life, and certainly don't need one more.
Me in 2006:
And me now:
I think I'm wearing the same brand of jeans and style of shirt in both pictures, but that's where the similarities end. Thank goodness.
[To the tune of Radiohead, "Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner)," from the album Hail To The Thief (I give it 4 stars).]
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 is published by Little, Brown and Co.. You can find it at your local bookstore, or order it through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or IndieBound.
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009