Saturday, 31 October 2009

Time Travel Tips

In his last post, Matt bought up the possibility that he would be transported back in time. I have therefore decided to offer some handy suggestions to him, or indeed to anyone who finds themselves transported into the distant past. To start with, I will tell you why all your treasured ideas will actually result in you getting painfully screwed.

1. "I know! I'll sell my technological knowledge. I'll be like a god to those superstitious fools!"

Well, overlooking for now that you can't speak the language, there is a bigger problem: You don't know anything about technology either. Do you know how to make gunpowder? Maybe, but do you know how to refine and cast metal? Do you know where to get sulphur from? Do you, in short, know everything about every stage of the production of anything except, say, baskets? You do? That's great! The problem now is that you will be like a god to those superstitious fools. Do you know what else you look like? A witch! Or, at the very least, you look like a serious threat to whatever despot is in charge of your chosen corner of the world. How's your steam engine going to help you when they shoot you in the neck with an arrow? You are, in short, a dead man. Plus the past smells really bad.

Ok, that's the first time travel tip! More tomorrow.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Internal Combustion Engine, and 'Men'

Years ago Nick and I had ideas about what it was to be a man.

Back then we thought that perhaps Nick's interest in cars might possibly compliment my interest in football and, in combination, create credible man credentials.

Then we walked from Lake Geneva to Nice across the Alps with nothing but a tent and a cooker on our backs. The matter is no longer questioned. We also learned that 'man', in any sensible meaning of the word, requires the prefix 'granite-hard-mountain-'.

But all this is (half) beside the point. Because today I suddenly had a flash moment of insight into what Nick (and some few previously-considered-mad) men find interesting about cars, or the mechanics of them, at any rate. I actually read an explanation of the internal combustion engine.
A piston draws a mixture of air and fuel into a cylinder, then compresses it. A
spark plug ignites the mixture, and the explosion pushes the piston, rotating a
crankshaft to turn the wheels. Waste products escape out of the exhaust valve,
and the cycle repeats.

It's so simple! And who doesn't occasionally wonder how pissed off they'd be if they were transported a couple of thousands of years back in time and couldn't explain this kind of stuff to revolutionize the world and claim immortal fame?

(And no longer will I have to avert my eyes in ignorance and shame when someone mentions the words 'spark plug')

Football Nick?

Augmented Reality II

When I was younger and full of pent-up rage without any obvious outlet, I invented in my head a gun. This gun looked a lot like the one that came with the NES for use with the game duck hunt. In fact, it looked exactly like it, only it was hooked up to a box that connected to your TV. I know the question forming in your mind: Did that box look anything like the NES. The answer to that question is no. My box was black.

The crucial difference, though, was the fact that my box was intended to merely alter the signal from conventional broadcast TV, with the aim of making it look like you could shoot characters in your favourite (or least favourite) shows. How I wished I could shoot Stonefish from Neighbours and take his woman for my own. How I longed to send Otis the Aardvark shuffling from this mortal coil. Now, 15 years later (thanks, fast moving technical progress. Thanks a lot.), my fantasies are about to become a reality. And not just for TV characters, Oh no! With the wonders of AR, already extolled here, I can pretend like I am shooting various household objects which have aroused my wrath. Cupboard getting you down? Don't worry, turn on your iphone, open the application, spend 5 minutes setting the relevant settings then exact your revenge by producing a picture of the cupboard with a semi-realistic hole through it. Wonderful. This is why the state funds people's university educations.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


Arnold "the guvernator" Schwarzenegger's office have not
confirmed that this letter contains a
relatively cleverly hidden message for a colleague who has been
overly critical of him in the past.

Seems to me that a statistical defense won't hold a lot of water.
There are 26^7 combinations of first letters possible for
inciting seven lines of text. That's a lot of work for

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


In this godless modern world there are frequent and shrill shouts telling us that the book is dead. As an avowed technophile and owner of a Sony e-book reader, I may have even lent my voice to the cacophony. I am here today to atone. The book is not dead, it is just different and, arguably, better. For about 6 or 7 years now, and to almost universal acclaim, McSweeney's has been publishing books that rise above that designation. As a subscriber to their "Quarterly Concern" you would have received a book that looks like a pile of mail, a book that is really 8 tiny hardback books in a dainty little box, a selection of books about Latin American revolutionary behaviour stored in a cigar box, and, for some reason, a black plastic comb.

The reason I bring this up now is that McSweeney's are having an unbelievable sale. For all those of you with jobs I highly recommend dropping 100 USD, which will get you at least 10 books including the postage. Believe me, you will feel all of the positive feelings associated with robbing a baby when the books turn up in all their unconventionally packaged glory. I cannot recommend it enough.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Part Deux

Dear Reader,

Further to our prior communication on the subject of good writing, and what that might look like if you were capable of producing it, I wish to add this addendum. I feel that the content could especially benefit you in overcoming your unique difficulties.

Yours Truly

Nick James

Welcome to the Future

It is my considered opinion that the human race is doomed. Soon we're going to be overrun by super-intelligent computers created by pasty scientists in green-tinted labs, who are, as we speak, crossing lines in the pursuit of knowledge that no man should consider even approaching. These silicon brains will, ideally, be encased in indestructable metal bodies, which will ruthlessly crush their erstwhile human masters underfoot.

Sadly, though, we have a while to wait until that happens. In the meantime, everyone is welcome to enjoy the happy fruits of the pursuit of truths better left undiscovered. One of those fruits (I'd put it on the level of a pineapple, or, at a push, a mango) is augmented reality. This means exactly what it sounds like it means. It's reality, but with bolt-on extras. Think Firefox plug-ins for your pathetic meat-based senses. Obviously the technology is still in its infancy, so no terminator style threat-identifying vision yet. You can, however, take a picture of a restaurant with your iPhone, and magically receive reviews and menus immediately. It's not a slab of refreshing transistors implanted directly into the soft grey tissue of your frontal cortex, but I guess it's a start.

More info here, and loads more than even I know what to do with here.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Writing Elizabeth Taylor with Chips

Three Things:

Elizabeth Taylor

This lovely much misunderstood(!) star of such classics as A Place in the Sun (An American Tragedy) (1951) (pictured) had some early wisdom in love, even if it did betray the naive romanticism that eventually did for her.

At the age of 14 she had about 20 pet chipmunks, all called Nibbles (they were interchangeable, like men). In order to be completely sure that Nibbles loved her, she took him to the edge of a forest and set him down upon the ground. Nibbles tentatively hopped towards the line of trees before turning around and gazing back with big, sad eyes. Suddenly, filled with adoration for his pretty little girl, he dashed back and leapt into her arms. This became the foundation of her later approach to relationships: set the man free and offer him escape back into the world, away from her, and see if he comes back. From then on, at the critical point, she always tested her lovers, turning them away and giving them only one chance to run back to her arms.

I said she had wisdom. What do you think? Love on terms of freedom only?

Chips (Fries)

(As in, little stubs of potato, fried)

I just made the most delicious chips imaginable. The secret is to cover the bastards in cheap vegetable oil and then hit them with maximum heat in the oven. Oh baby.


Nick mentioned writing tips a couple of posts down. Very useful stuff. Can't really agree with the celebration of Vonnegut though. I've read Ice Nine and Slaughterhouse 5 now and neither struck me as totally brilliant, though I appreciate them both in many ways. My problem is the smugness of the guy. He's so proud of his short, punchy little sentences.

Even my creative writing tutor (oh yes, every Monday night for 3 hours in North London - at least he's a successful author - Andrew Taylor) thinks Vonnegut is a model of writing style. I made the same objections to him and he more or less ignored me. Mind you, I think he appreciated the contribution since no one else in a class of 14 had read any of his stuff, or Chekhov's, or Dostoyevsky's... Who are these people?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Bread and Circuses

In the 20 odd years I have been playing computer games (is our generation the first to have grown up with this ubiquity?), the trend has been for more. More enemies, better graphics, sound that comes fro, like, behind you and, best of all, realistic physics. Its a bit of a surprise then, that one of the best games to have graced my screen recently looks like it could have been made in 1987, and requires only one key to play. Canabalt is set in a, I assume, dystopian future where buildings are procedurally generated and people are controlled by only one button. That button is 'jump'. The rest of the time the citizens run blindly towards their deaths far below on the mutant-overrun streets. The suits look pretty good though, so it's not all bad news on the horizon.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

I suspect that many readers (and writers) of this blog would prefer to make their living by the pen. By this I mean that instead of using their pens to write about meetings and finance data, they would prefer to use them to write stories about meetings and finance data. I therefore present some useful writing aids and tips.

1. If you are willing to make the effort to move your eyes 3 inches to the left, you will see a picture. This picture illustrates but 4 of 42 third-act twists to spice up any story about corporate minutia. Or zombies.

2. If your tastes run more to the non-fictional, here's some useful advice from real life, non-fiction author (he both writes non-fiction, and is a bona fide author), Bryan Caplan.

3. Finally, my personal favourite, the late, lamented Kurt Vonnegut's style guide. That should really need no introduction.


Following on from my Brief Slice of Emo the other day, it turns out I'm not the only one to have such thoughts (surprising eh?). I'm reading a biography of Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist from the 1950s and the last lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She discovers poetry with him and he says:

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You can discover that your
longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from
anyone. You belong.

Medieval-Style Wooden Skyscraper

Brilliantly crazy Russian gangster business-guy, Nikolai Sutyagin, has spent plenty of time and money building an enormous wooden skyscraper (12 stories!). I don't speak Russian, but luckily the internet is a fantastic place that always has my back. Here's the whole story from (presumably) primary documents.
Also, click on the picture for more, um, pictures.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


"We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?" Jean Cocteau

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Brief Slice of Emo

We are all quick to believe that the love we find is unique, but if it should end then the only comfort is in knowing we are not alone.

Neal Stephenson Possibly Kicks it out of the Park

I think that my co-author and I speak with one voice when it comes to praising the virtues of Neal Stephenson. Equally at home writing about the past, present and future, and filling every book with provocative, important ideas (Google Earth? Cheers for that one Neal. Avatars? Well the jury's still out as to whether they're a good thing, but Neal certainly coined the term).
Anyway, if there has ever been a reason that I miss living in Ontario, it's this conference/festival. Luckily for me (and Matt) the talks are all online. I haven't been able to find 75 min to watch this clip of NS, Lee Smolin (author of the excellent The Trouble With Physics) and Jaron Lanier (general purpose artificial reality pioneer/crusty cyber-hippie), but I would stake my reputation on it being mind-meltingly awesome. Get it here!

Discovering the Social Brain

Last week I attended The International Symposium on Applied Neuroscience and Neuropsychology at the University of Hong Kong. The theme was the "Social Brain", and included talks on mirror neurons (which I wrote about a couple of years ago here), Autism, and the loss-chasing behaviour in gambling.
The really striking thing about the conference was not only how much we now know about the chemical and neurological bases of psychology, it was how much more and fascinating work remains to be done. With current scanning technologies, scientists can identify specific areas of the brain in which neurons are firing in real time. They then say: Look! that bit's the bit of the brain that deals with risk analysis. And then, just to be sure they go out and look for some poor soul who has received some kind of horrifying but localised brain injury in that area. Usually that person will display bizarre quirks when it comes to risk analysis, and act in abnormal ways when presented with stimuli of this type.
But there's still so much more to be done. I'd love to put some children in a scanner and see what the neurological processes were for the acquisition of language, or the difference between their responses to vocal and multimedia presentations. The problem at this point is cost and portability. You have to think, though, that the technology will improve over the coming years, until units will be available to field investigators. It's an exciting time. Over the coming week, I'll delve a little more deeply into some of the subjects discussed, and the implications of the research. Watch this space!

PS: Bunny Boilers

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Whilst Nick's been kicking off this soon-to-be-mighty accomplishment of literary-critical world-system observation, I've been wandering about in Trieste, Italy, and Pula, Croatia. I have a little story from each.


There is a bridge over the short canal that proceeds inland from the harbour. Upon this bridge are dozens of padlocks. I asked my (girl in every port) Patrizia what this was all about. Apparently some guy called Federico Moccia wrote a book called I Want You and now all Italian teenagers feel the need to go around writing their names on padlocks, locking posts on bridges and then throwing the keys into the river as a symbol of everlasting unbreakable love. The craze, it seems, started in Rome and has caused a political storm, amazingly resulting in the following quote from probably the most romantic petty bureaucrat in the world:

"There are so many stupidly hateful people these days who want to strike out at
people who are really in love. The message of the padlocks is strong and
extremely positive," said Marco Daniele Clarke, the assessor for public works in
the municipality.
So I took a pretty picture:


Then I looked across at Patrizia, silhouetted against the moon, hair gently wavering in the light Indian summer breeze and... Yeah.


There's a small island off the coast of Pula, called Brijuni (the guy at reception in my decadent hotel laughed when I pronounced the 'j'). It was once the Summer residence of Tito, the then president of Yugoslavia (out of the ruins of which Croatia emerged last decade). Tito, when not running the Non-Aligned_Movement, or giving tangerines to sweet needy little orphans, or proclaiming the brilliance of communism, was using the proceeds of 'worker power' to fund this crazy island which boasts a now abandoned zoo and a bizarre golf course where the greens are sand bunkers.

Anyhow, my friend Rob and I were wandering around this island a couple of afternoons ago when, as though we were in some strange adventure RPG, we came across a prism of glass, about 10 metres high, with giant spolights inside it pointing outwards, as though to turn it into some sort of magic sun-prism by night. As we pondered this peculiar artefact we heard an inhuman cry come from between the trees off to one side. Glancing nervously at one another we proceeded through a break in the line of trees to discover a set of rusting, apparently abandoned large bird cages. Approaching more closely we found that one of these cages had a cockatoo in it. "Hello!" said Rob. "Tito tito tito tito!" said the bird. I laughed at the bird. The bird laughed at me. Seriously. It laughed. It was the most human laugh you can imagine. I laughed again, more nervously. The bird laughed, then said something in distinct syllables that I can only imagine must have been Croatian. Amazing! Apparently, as we later discovered from a local, this must have been Tito's legendary talking bird. The incredible thing is that Tito died nearly 30 years ago and this bird still talks about him...

Junk Mail

One of the great things about living in the future is the fact that we have witnessed and taken part in the communications revolution. Right now I am sitting in a towel writing a post which will be read by fully threes of people. There's something I couldn't have done 20 years ago: inflict my poorly judged opinions on 1/1000000000th of the Planet Earth's population.
Still, the best thing about these magical technologies is the junk mail. In the past week alone I have been propositioned by 14 presumably attractive girls, who, despite having never met me are fully prepared to engage in congress of the most base type. I think it's the Lynx effect.
I understand, though that some people don't feel the same way as me, and for those unenlightened few I offer a solution. An enterprising soul has created a series of pictures showing the denizens of officeland how to regress to their primitive selves by tossing photocopiers out of windows and forming hunter-gatherer societies, armed only with staplers. All you have to do is print them out, send them back to the junk-mailing companies in those pre-paid envelopes, and wait with bated breath for the newspaper story telling of the Reader's Digest office's slow descent into a happier, more stone-agey, time.

Friday, 16 October 2009

I'm not in Britain...

..but those of you who are need to be picking up this magazine.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The funniest thing I have seen all month:


LHC: Targeted by its own future?

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been beset by troubles since its inception (most recently a researcher has been accused of having links to Al Quaeda). Luckily though, there is a perfectly ration explanation: the project is being sabotaged by God, who is desperate to ensure that the facility does not, at some time in the future, produce the Higgs Boson.
The theory is brilliant its simplicity. No wait, it's not; it's incredibly out there, weird and Terminator-esque. Still, the current number one contender for a "theory of everything" posits that our familiar particles actually exist in 11-dimensions, most of which are undetectably small, so maybe time-travelling, ultra-secretive deities are not the weirdest things bumping around in physicists' minds these days.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009


So, the real problem here has been coming up with a first post that will say something about what is coming up without understating the probable impact, or overstating the amount that the world is going to change by simply having this blog in it. Finally it hit me and I assure you that it wasn't just the impatience. The impact is going to be akin to a bullet hitting various things, and the things are going to explode in beautiful ways like shattered flowers. And when they don't explode like shattered flowers, they are going to rip and shred like the scales that will fall from your eyes when they are exposed to the power of our truths. And when they do none of the above, our truth-bullets will simply liquefy, leaving only metallic drops floating silently and majestically to earth. Behold:

Also, like this video, our blog will best be enjoyed under the influence of your consciousness expander of choice. In this case I recommend Duvel, balls to the wall belgian craftsmanship. If you believe in such a thing. Most of all, enjoy!