A New York Times Dream

This is a real dream I had, about four hours ago:

I was with a friend in a shop of gadgets and curios – the sort of place that has soap dispensers attached to D-ring clips, or electronic scales with keyboards – when I spotted a odd device on the bottom shelf. It looked like a fax machine with a big bowl on top, and it had the New York Times logo on it.

“What does that do?” I asked, picking it up – it was surprisingly light.

“It prints out issues of the New York Times every day,” said my friend.

“Sweet!” I turned it around, looking for the specs. “Is it a laser printer or an inkjet?”

“Laser printer,” he replied, peering at the shelf label.

“How much does it cost?”

“$300.”

“Wow! We totally have to get this!” Even with the weak pound, $300 was clearly a steal. “But what’s this bowl for?”

“Oh, that’s where you put the pulp in.”

“What, you mean you have to make your own paper?” I asked.

“Yeah, but think about it, you can change the consistency, leave bits in, use different colours…”

“I don’t know…” I said doubtfully. It seemed like a lot of effort to get the paper every day. I put the New York Times machine down, regretfully, and left the shop.

The dream was probably inspired by a quote I saw by Clay Shirky that said “But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button,” and this video:

The Quick Rise of Reading

A mere two weeks after I wrote about The Long Decline of Reading, which drew largely on the US National Endowment of Arts’ (NEA) 2007 data, the NEA promptly released a report (Reading on the Rise) showing that fiction reading rates significantly increased from 2002 to 2008. Not just for certain age groups or ethnicities, but for practically everyone. I don’t think anyone was expecting this, since reading rates have been declining ever since the NEA began its survey in 1982.

Reading rates among adults

Despite the fact that the report has blown a gaping hole in the premise of my previous post, I’m very happy, particularly because the most dramatic increase in fiction reading was in the dreaded 18-24 age group. These guys, who have an excess of distracting media in their lives, increased their fiction reading by a full 21 percent, neatly reversing the 20 percent decline seen in the last survey. Other notable drastic increases were found among Hispanic and African-Americans.

Reading rates among 18-24 year olds

It’s not clear whether this rise is a blip, attributable to ‘fads’ such as Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code, or whether the US’ attitude towards reading has been transformed by book clubs, an increased appreciation for the arts, and improved education (and, yes, also those fads). We’ll just have to wait until the next survey to find out, but it’s a pleasant piece of news that I hope will be mirrored in other countries.

Mastery of Games

Chess is not a game I’ve ever been a big fan of. I played a little at school, but I never had the patience or concentration to really study the game or learn the moves. I’d often look at better players and have absolutely no idea what was going on or why they were making their particular moves. Reading this great post on Metafilter by three blind mice, about playing a ranked chess master, gave me a little insight into what it takes to cross the massive gulf between being merely good at a complex game, and becoming a true master:

“But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit.”

But you also have to have the talent.

I used to be, what I thought, was a pretty decent chess player. I easily beat most people I played and could defeat most of those hand-held computers that were coming out in the 1980s.

Then, one day, a friend invited me over for a smoke and a drink. Seeing that he had a chess table set-up, I asked him if he fancied a game. He beat me quickly. Twice.

So I figured I would see how good he was. During the third game, we’re about 30 moves into the game, and he steps out of the room, so I moved one of his pieces to my advantage. My friend Mark comes back in, sits down, and immediately moves the piece back. Somewhat surprised, I ask if he saw me move it.

Mark looked at me curiously, wiped all the pieces off the board, set them up from the beginning, and says to me “In Chess, you either see it or you do not.” He then makes my opening move, explaining “The standard opening for white,” pausing for effect and then adding “and also the opening move Spasky used in his third match against Fisher in the game I was studying last night.” “Boris is a ham and egger,” he tells me.

“I countered with Fischer’s move,” he says moving his piece. “Also very standard.”

“And then you did something very interesting. A very unconventional move, but I’ve seen it used a few times. When I was 13 someone did this to me and it really threw me off my tempo since it was not like any standard opening. I lost that game in 25 moves.”

Mark was 35 and he was telling me about a game he played when he was 13. At this point I began to understand that I was out of my league.

So he looks at me, and says, “I countered your move with the same move I used against the Israeli national champion at the Philadelphia Open when I was 15. He tried your same trick on me too, but by then I had figured out several defenses.”

He moves his piece, turning a gimlet eye to me, he says “And then you made a really stupid move so I knew you didn’t know what you were doing.”

And he goes on the explain each move up to where he left the room. “This was the position of the board when I left, you moved this pawn here while I was out.”

I was gobsmacked.

It is not enough to study the game, you have to have a photographic memory and a massive intellect to really be any good at it. Turns out my friend Mark Coles – who was one of the smartest people I have ever met – was a ranked Chess Master with a long list of merits and trophies. We were both playing chess, but he was playing another game. I never played much chess after that. I’ll play a game or two with a couple of ex-cons I know who learned to play in the joint, but I don’t really consider it as playing chess. I don’t know anything about the game.

I discovered this post while reading about a rather less intellectual, but nevertheless breathtaking, matchup in a tournament game of Street Fighter 2 (a game where I enjoyed mashing all the buttons as fast as I possibly could).

To understand why this is such an impressive game, skip to 2:40, and then read these two posts explaining what’s going on (first, second).

Ernst Choukula

There’s been some ruckus about a History class at George Mason University in which students created a hoax about an ‘Edward Owens’, the “Last American Pirate”. They made a blog, put up some YouTube videos, and most annoyingly, created an article on Wikipedia.

I find these hoaxes tiresome. We all know that it’s easy to publish misinformation online; it’s done thousands of times, every day, on small and large scales, and it’s as easy as pressing an ‘Edit’ button. If someone is going to put up misinformation, I’d rather they do it with style and panache, like this brilliant addition to the Count Chocula article on Wikipedia (archived):

Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who– by the early twentieth century–had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland.

A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first “barrelled cereal” endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted “Ernst Choukula’s Golden Wheat Muesli”, a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called “gruhll” or “gruell,” and would eat the concoction each morning before work. The trend unwittingly spread, with alcohol being replaced by sheep–and then cow’s–milk, and the demand for the Choukula’s “cereal” reached as far south as Poland and as far west as the northern Jutland province of Denmark.

It wasn’t long before the unmistakable image (the original packaging, a three gallon wooden vat which featured a burnt etching of a jubilant, overalled Ernst holding a large dog and grinning broadly) made a pop-cultural splash throughout the entirety of Europe and northern Africa. In fact, Tunisia’s “Carthagian Sand Crunch” was seen as the first imitation of the Choukula form; the aforementioned product was presented in broad leathern bags with the woven insignia of a nude tribesman holding a sword and a bunched stalk of oats. Sadly, this would neither be the first nor the tamest appropriation of Ernst’s iconic visage. Continue reading “Ernst Choukula”