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Roland
Milan/Tokyo, IT
Immortal since Jan 11, 2008
Uplinks: 0, Generation 3

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Untangling
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    Text that redefines...

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    What will happen when for the first time in ages different human species will inhabit the earth at the same time? The day may be upon us when people...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.
    I point at the small cardboard structure on the train's table. The guard stands blankly and wonders: have I heard him?

    Guard: Your ticket, sir.

    Robokku: Mmm. Yes.

    G: May I see it?

    R: That's it.

    G: It seems it has been bent, sir. I'm not sure the machine will read it.

    He is understating the situation, which disappoints me: I have not merely 'bent' my ticket.

    The train has been immobile for one hour, in grey meadows somewhere between grey cities. Total journey time so far: three hours. Sanities in the carriage are now fully dependent on portable entertainment. The passengers have brought books, iPods, laptops, DSes, and many styles of picnic. I brought a penknife. And my ticket.

    From my ticket, using my penknife, I have created a very detailed miniature replica of myself, seated at the train's table. It is something of a fantasy scenario, in which I have a laptop and a table to myself, rather than a penknife and a fat man too close. Whilst I have, admittedly, bent the ticket in the course of this intricate production, to say only that is to do down my efforts. Mere unobsessive bending of the ticket would not have elicited all those stares. Mothers would not have held their curious children away; the fat man would not have rubbed his mass along the seat towards the window, as far as his reserves would allow. I have not simply mishandled my ticket; I have achieved something. I am a doer - a creator.




    R: It is bent, yes. But there's more to it than that really.

    G: Yes, sir. It looks as if it has been cut up as well.

    R: Well, the ticket itself is actually still in one piece. You see I planned the cuts quite carefully before I made them. I think some of the shapes I've found are quite clever.

    G: Nonetheless, sir, I think the machine may now not read the ticket.

    R: Could we try it? Look: if I take the man off - this is me, by the way, sitting here at the table - the table is quite close to the real one, don't you think? Look at the leg; it's just the same! You see he comes away - the seats, table and window stand alone, and look... If I unfold it... It's actually just one piece - a complete ticket. Where does it go in the machine?

    G: I don't think it'll be read by the machine, sir.

    R: Yes; let's see. I'm sure you're right - you know the machine better than I do. But we should try it.

    G: I'm afraid that could damage the reader, sir. The pieces will get stuck in the slot.

    R: Well it's just one piece-

    G: -Yes but the cuts, sir. Parts of it might protrude from the intended flat form of the ticket and so not leave the slot with the rest, even if it goes in. Then there would be pieces, sir - it would damage your model.

    R: I see. Yes. I'll fold it back up then, in that case. You can see how the shapes come together now, when I fold it. It took me about an hour to make it.



    G: I'm afraid that if you don't have a ticket, sir, then you will have to buy a new one.

    R: Oh! Didn't I show you? Look: I can unfold it again. Sorry, I was distracted by the model itself: I probably didn't make it clear. Look - there - that's the ticket! That's what I used to make the model! It's neat isn't it, how it-

    G: -Sir - I'm afraid that that ticket is no good because you've damaged it. You will have to buy a replacement. The train is for passengers only.

    R: Well, of course. Anyone on the train is a passenger! By definition, right? So it is for-

    Fat man: -But we're not moving. We're not passengers if we don't go anywhere.

    Robokku: Oh. Hello. OK, yes, but, assuming we're moving, which, in a broad sense, we are-

    Guard: -I'm not a passenger.

    R: Well... Maybe not... But the rest of us, in virtue of being on the train, are passengers.

    G: I really mean paying passengers, sir.

    R: I've paid.

    G: And that's what you need the ticket to prove...

    R: Aha! Look then! If I just... well... actually, I needn't even unfold it for you: you can see the price there, on the outside of the window frame. Did you look at it from that side? It really works from all angles.



    G: Sir, that is not a valid ticket. It is unreadable.

    R: No, look - I'll flatten it for you again.

    G: Please, sir, there's no need. You showed me. The ticket's damaged.

    R: But it is readable. £31.40. Can you read that?

    Fat man: Yes.

    Robokku: He can read it.

    Guard: The machine can't read it, though, sir.

    R: But you don't need the machine. You can use your eyes. I'm sure the machine is rather helpful for reading tickets - and it's a shame that in this instance it can't read my ticket - but fortunately you can manage without it on this occasion because the ticket is easily legible. Because I planned the cuts quite carefully before I made them.

    G: It's not up to me to read the tickets, sir. The machine's not here to assist me in that. In fact, if anything, I’m here to assist the machine, by carrying it from one passenger to the next and feeding it tickets, so that it can read them. But despite my help, it still cannot read yours. So you will have to buy a ticket, sir, because you don't have one and so you are not a passenger. The trains are for passengers only, sir. If you are not a passenger, then you are not permitted to use the train.

    R: But I must be a passenger because I'm on the train. And what's more, I do have a ticket. And my ticket shows that I'm a passenger: look - that's me at the table. I don't think it could show it more clearly! So even in your terms...

    G: That's not the way the machine has it, I'm afraid.

    R: Why don't you sit down for a minute and we'll discuss it.

    G: Sir, I must insist that you buy a ticket.

    R: Just sit there for a moment on that seat.

    G: ... That seat is occupied, sir. By a passenger - she has a ticket.

    R: No, that seat's empty. You can sit there. Sit down.

    G: ... ... ?



    I continue to gesture to the seat opposite me, and the woman in it. She is now quite anxious. Every iPod is secretly paused, every book is stared straight through, pages unturned. Everyone on the carriage is waiting, curious: it is likely that I really am mad, as the mothers suspected.

    R: It's empty. Sit down.

    G: You must buy a ticket, sir.

    R: Look: this is me - the man - as I said, at the table, here. That's the window, the seats, and... Ha! This seat, here - that one, across from me - is empty. My model is quite plain about it. Take a seat. That one. It's empty.

    G: You seem to have a computer in your model, sir. Or a pizza box.

    R: It's a computer.

    G: You don't have a computer, sir.

    R: But I have a ticket.

    G: No you don’t.

    R: Not in my model, no. But then I do have a computer. Will you excuse me? I’m working.

    G: I must-

    R: Now, look! I have found a peaceful seat with a table of my own and lots of space, and no distractions. I am at work on my computer and I have a lot to do - and I'm not getting it done while you distract me.



    G: But you haven’t modelled me, sir, have you? So I’m not distracting you - in so far as you have a computer on which to do work, from which I might distract you.

    R: You’re right! You're really getting the hang of this now! Either I have a computer and no ticket but you're not there, or I have a ticket but no computer and you are there. Either way, you needn't bother me any more.

    G: Actually, sir, it's like this: the machine is here, and you have no ticket. You must buy a ticket.

    R: How does the machine know I'm here if I don't have a ticket?

    A bird tweets outside.

    The guard opens his mouth, then stops to think, then closes his mouth, and stops thinking.


    G: Sir, you will have to buy a ticket, but I'll come back to you. Please be ready to buy a ticket when I come back. You've got ten minutes. Tickets please!



    The guard moves on. My laptop screen snaps into focus. The spreadsheet sits there, static. No changes to save. I hit command-S. I feel the blankness of an inner digression ended, or starting, as the trees shoot by.

    Commutestats.xls. Numbers tied together: I planned them quite carefully. They make a fine model. They reach up to some reality, which was my starting point when I plotted them. Now, though, as I start to manipulate what's noted down, I build pictures of them. The numbers came from the world, but I must conjure what I want them to show. Am I seeing or imagining? How long have I been on this train?

    Just ten more minutes...


    Tue, Jan 13, 2009  Permanent link
    Categories: information, egocentrism, existence, model
    Sent to project: The Total Library
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    I got the Guardian today, but my eyes didn't even reach the fold. They didn't even reach the date. The top corner advertises page 4 of G2, the comment and features section:
    Nicholson Baker
    Wikipedia took over my life

    Thrill. This paper was supposed just to be something to prop my gaze against while the sandwich went in. Now I was actually set up for an enjoyable lunchtime. A good surprise. I called my dad.

    To me, Nicholson Baker was a man who wrote a short novel, quirkily interesting, in the 1980s, then disappeared into obscurity. I thought that of him because a little while ago I read The Mezzanine. It was a novel. It was short. I found it quirkily interesting. The cover was classically 1980s-styled. When I finished it, I heard nothing more of Nicholson Baker. I had not heard of him before I read it either. So I pictured him as having disappeared into obscurity by, say, 1986, leaving behind a wacky story of shoelaces, milk cartons, and the great paper vs. plastic drinking straw debate.

    I read The Mezzanine on my dad's recommendation. He is in product design. An academic. I could see why he'd been pushing it on his students, probably since the 80s. I loved the book. It is a recent thing-in-common between us, so I called him now, sandwich still sticker-sealed. He shared my thrill. Nicholson Baker? Wikipedia? Well... He would set out to buy the Guardian right away, he said. However, I was a little disappointed to discover, in conversation with Dad, that our thing-in-common was not as in-common as I had thought. For instance, he had never read a favourite section of mine. It was the two-page footnote imagining microscopic explorers investigating up-close the histories of erosion of the grooves in records, and then comparing them to the findings from a different miniaturised expedition into the grooves left behind in ice by skates. He had not read it, he said, because his attention had been too strongly bound by the relaying, in another two-page footnote, of stapler designers' decades-long, slavish following of locomotive form factors, which they reproduced in functional officeware precisely and consistently twenty years behind the fashions of the trainyard. (That is to say that 1960s staplers are shaped like 1940s trains, and 1970s staplers are shaped like 1950s trains, and so on.) In short, he hadn't actually read the whole book. But he could see its appeal, and so could I. Strangely, I think the following review sums up my affection for it.

    Faintly amusing for about ten pages then increasingly, numbingly dull: the moment-by-moment thoughts of a 25-ish office worker during his lunch hour—with an unabashed, verbose focus on the most trivial, everyday activities.

    (From the first review showing on Google Books)


    So I hope you can understand my anticipation as I thumbed for the G2, phone now on hook, sandwich bag open: The Mezzanine addressed only the whole world, Wikipedia is a much bigger subject. I was ready for the minutiae of the massive, the intricacies of the infinite.

    The article was charming. Dressed up like a Wikipedia entry, with blue hyperlinked footnotes, which made for a passable gag in pulpy newsprint. I took that first impression back to the office, eating on the move. Having chatted with dad, I didn't have time to read the article until later.



    Naturally, I sneaked in some research whilst at the desk, alt-tabbing discreetly between Excel and Wikipedia's Baker entry for some indulgent scene-setting. I read his publications list. Sure enough, The Mezzanine appeared in the 80s, but, contrary to my egocentric version of events, it was the beginning of a string of notable novels and non-fictions, occasionally cheering critics and perturbing best-seller lists. Included were:

    Vox (1992)
    A phone-sex taboo-toucher (strangely described in the wiki as "disappointingly unpornographic").

    Check-in (2004)
    A story concerning a psychotic-sounding fellow who plots the assassination of George W by unworkably stupid means, but principally concerning his conversation with a friend about his arrival at such plans.

    U and I: Tall Tales (1998)
    Non-fiction. This one inspired me because it apparently involves an investigation and analysis of John Updike's works, written without reading those works at all at any point after the commencement of the project. This caught my imagination so much that I have written this post in exactly that way. As a result, this list and my earlier references to The Mezzanine are certainly inaccurate. (In particular, these book titles escape me now, so I have fabricated them.)

    Decimo: Book destruction in US libraries 1972-1986 (2001)
    Non-fiction. This one brought to mind some thoughts of Rene's, in a post I read yesterday. He was wondering about the impact of the openness and accessibility of information on printed books and our attitudes towards them. (Sorry, Rene, if you read this: I've not reread your post either, so I may misrepresent you.) In Decimo, Baker actually traced the histories of print publications abandoned by librarians and tagged for destruction in the microfiching frenzy of the 70s and 80s. (Apparently there was a microfiching frenzy in the 70s and 80s.)


    I was sure then, in light of those last two books on the list, that Nicholson Baker was a man with a high regard for subjective impressions of things (Tall Tales) and a love for the history and future of information collation (Decimo). He was a man whose reaction to Wikipedia I wanted to witness. By five, I knew this G2 article was going to be a treat. I stacked the day's spread of paperwork at one side of the desk, took the supplement from my bag and laid it in the space. Then I changed my mind. I would read it at home, savour it. I bagged it again and put on my coat, clipped my trousers for the cycle.

    Actually, no. My mind was perfectly primed, I thought. This was the moment to read it. I sat at my desk again, still coated and clipped, fished out the paper and flicked to page 4. I had been right at lunchtime: the Wikipedian stylings really were charming. I read the title and lead-in again - I had got that far before. Then it occurred to me that my readiness to enjoy this article had only increased since lunchtime. The anticipation was sort of stewing, the flavours of expectation spreading and intensifying, I thought, which image made me realise I was hungry. I would read it at home. Then I could eat first: might as well add the satisfaction of a full stomach. Besides, my research had so effectively confirmed the high probability that the article would be utterly gripping, that I could actually plot a related post for Space Collective on the cycle home. Decided. I repacked and left.

    Bike locked; house clothes on; work clothes pressed; feeding accomplished; feet up. The thrill of knowing I was going to read a good article; the bliss of a happily distracted digestive system. That is what it's all about. That would be the high point of the day. The truth was, I decided, I didn't even need to read the article.

    So I didn't.

    If you want to, it's here.
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    How a film about Nikola Tesla might look


    In The Total Library, Rene posted a really nice bit about narratives - grand ones. He mentioned Obvious, and a post of his, and it drew a comment from me. But then the comment got to be very long, and I felt rude clogging up that nice post, and the Library. So I put it here, out of the way.

    I could have spent this time introducing you to the discussion, but I didn't. Sorry. Here's a lead in: Rene said,
    "Because narrative tends to be closely related to the Humanities, the discipline’s stories are much wider spread."

    And so without more ado...

    I'm not sure that the humanities' stories are more widely spread than the sciences'. I can't decide. I've already admitted that I'm a bad reader. Anyway, the way I understand the idea of 'narrative' in Obvious' writings leads me to think that people are put off from creating scientific narratives, simply because they don't have the expert knowledge that they think they need in order to create them. I'll try to explain that.

    Perhaps many people see the ground covered by the humanities as accessible, comprehensible territory, whereas science is popularly understood to be complicated and for experts. Yet nowadays Western society is dominated by scientific images, ideas, and metaphors. Simplified versions of scientific notions like evolution, relativity, progress and explanation are adopted piecemeal and applied and misapplied in politics, the press, advertising - that may be the best example - and even back in the humanities.

    For me, a narrative - in this case, the narrative(s) of a discipline, but I think any narrative - is not a history. It's not a true story; it's not just what happened, in order. It is just the kind of thing that is understood, at a very basic level, by humans. We make ourselves stories of the world that account for the various pieces of knowledge that we need to tessellate. As such, narratives could perhaps be large-scale things, composed by a community and so existing in some sense 'outside' of the individuals of that community. (Like, e.g., accepted common knowledge about a subject. [I'm not sure about this idea, personally, but there's room for it.]) However, seeing them this way, narratives are certainly things held by individuals - individuals' versions of events, 'told' to themselves in the act of mentally grasping their subject matter.

    I get the feeling - and I'm speaking as a non-scientist, in case you hadn't guessed - that in practice, in modern society, people have to build a narrative of science on or around the very few fragments that they (think they) have actually understood. Hence the distorted accounts of scientific ideas that prevail outside the scientific community, when accounts of them are given. In contrast, things like literature, philosophy, and maybe even history, are (I think) typically seen as being more accessible to the layperson. Therefore, laypeople (think they) understand more of the subjects they turn their minds to and so have more of a pre-existing foundation on which to build their narratives.

    I'm not sure that could account for a big difference in spread between the narratives of science and the humanities, but maybe it's a useful or interesting analysis all the same. (I certainly don't think I have answered the question, "Why are there no films about Tesla?")

    (I'm sure when I started I had an idea about books and the internet, which I was heading towards, but I didn't get there. Maybe something for a post in itself...)
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