Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: Quick Notes

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Quick notes on this book by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs, a popularisation of a 10-year study in which 32 middle-class Los Angeles families opened their doors to archaeologists and anthropologists to photograph, count, and classify every single visible object in their house.

Introduction

  • In general, it’s fascinating to look inside a wide range of American households. The houses were not specially tidied for the photographer so it’s a raw and realistic portrait.
  • The photos were taken from 2001-2005, so they’re pretty dated.
  • They didn’t look inside cupboards or wardrobes or boxes. I’m sure this is partly unavoidable due to privacy concerns, but it would skew the findings somewhat. Neither did they count “abundant stacks of papers, mail, and magazines, which we deemed impossible to tally with accuracy…”
  • If you were doing the study today, you’d get a grad student to walk inside with a SLR or 4K video camera and try to use machine vision to classify everything. If it worked well, you could identify every visible book, album, picture, and even do stuff like estimate the total mass and volume of objects. It’d make for a good cross-departmental research project.
  • The authors spend a little too long talking about just how much work the project took, which I don’t doubt but probably doesn’t warrant mentioning so many times. We already bought the book!
  • If you’re wondering how the researchers selected the 32 houses, this book won’t tell you. I assume the process is detailed in one of the original research papers, but it’s surprising they don’t include it here.

General & Storage

  • Americans own way more shit than I ever imagined. No wonder you’re all in debt.
  • A lovely turn of phrase: the US is the “most materially rich society in global history”.
  • At the time of writing, the US had 3.1% of world’s children, but 40% of the spending on toys.
  • One parent: “The closet is extremely unutilised because we usually can’t get to it.”
  • “Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods.” The authors estimate that 90% of the total square footage of garages in Los Angeles is used for storage.

Kitchens & Food

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  • “The typical Los Angeles refrigerator front panel is host to a mean of 52 objects.”
  • Making dinners with “mostly” convenience foods is only about 10% (or 5 minutes) faster than dinners that use mostly raw ingredients. Measured differently, convenience foods involve 26 minutes of “hands on” preparation time, versus 38 min for raw foods (excluding any oven/microwave time). A 12 minute different in preparation time isn’t as small a margin as the authors make it out to be, especially for busy and tired parents, but they do point out that convenience foods reduce complexity and shopping/planning time.
  • 14% of meals were from take out!
  • “Stockpiling is an efficient foraging strategy for parents who want to minimise the number of times they have round up young children…”

Everything Else

  • No-one uses their back yards.
  • Most of the houses are single storey, including the big ones.
  • I would love to see a longitudinal study to observed the effects of the recession and the impact of smartphones and tablets on the total material load inside US households.
  • Toilets have been unchanged in form for many decades. I note that out of all the rich tech companies I have visited over the years, only Google X had those fancy Japanese toilet/bidets.
  • This has not aged well: “At no point during tens of thousands of years of human history have people been as deeply engaged with nonessential technologies as we are today. Ownership of devices associated with entertainment and mobile communication has escalated from fad to addiction.” I should add that the edition I read was published in June 2017, long after it had become apparent that computers cannot be considered “nonessential technologies” that are only good for addictions.

A verse from Pablo Neruda, reflecting on the possessions at his home in Chile

They told me
many things, everything.
not only did they touch me
and take the hand I gave them
but they were bound to my life
in such a way
that they lived in me
and were such a living part of me
that they shared half of my life
and will die half of my death.

This House & Rhinoceros

Saw a couple of plays in Edinburgh recently:

This House is about the efforts of whips to maintain the shaky Labour government from 1974-79. When it premiered in 2012, a time when the most exciting thing in British politics was the coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it doubtless felt like an exciting, topical play about the idealism and reality of politics – hence the rave reviews.

Between Brexit and Trump, shit has gotten very real, so the play has lost some of its power in its 2018 incarnation. But that’s not the only reason why it left me cold. Fundamentally, it’s a story about Parliament, not politics. You never hear from a single person who isn’t a politician; you never spend a second outside of Westminster. It feels clammy and paternalistic. And I’m not sure that I care for that kind of story any more, not given the state of our politics lately.

(I also didn’t like the play’s fast and loose treatment of the arithmetic of the 1974 elections and just how governments are formed, but whatever.)

Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and is essentially about fascism and Nazism – note-perfect for our times, sadly. I enjoyed it very much and if there’s a production near you, I recommend you see it.

Here’s what I tweeted at the time:

Act 1: hey I thought this was meant to be about fascism, wtf?

Act 2: whoa whoa too much, pull it back!

Act 3: ok this is perfect

I really need to stop paying attention to The Verge’s book reviews. They loved The Gone World, which struck me as a novel-length SCP written by a fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. Gratuitously gruesome, weirdly incompetent (woman) protagonist, plot that doesn’t hold up under inspection at all. So… let’s make it into a movie!

Artificial Intelligence: Another Inspection

Film critics were not kind when A.I. Artificial Intelligence was released in 2001. A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg but originated from, and was made with, Stanley Kubrick, up until his death in 1999. A lot of reviewers accordinly blamed Spielberg for pretty much everything they disliked about the film, notably its final 30 minutes which appeared to be overly sentimental.

I enjoyed the movie when it was released. Admittedly, a lot of that was because I’d played the associated ARG, which also provided more context for the final 30 minutes. But it was hard to convince my friends that it was a good movie, especially in the face of critics.

In the past five years, prominent critics have begun reappraising A.I., to its benefit. A better understanding of the ending, and the relationship between Spielberg and Kubrick, sheds much light on the intention and message of the movie. In short, Spielberg didn’t write the ending, Kubrick put the teddy bear in, the aliens are actually machines, and the ending isn’t happy:

Roger Ebert: Great Movie: A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review (published 2011). See his original review for comparison.

Watching the film again, I asked myself why I wrote that the final scenes are “problematical,” go over the top, and raise questions they aren’t prepared to answer. This time they worked for me, and had a greater impact. I began with the assumption that the skeletal silver figures are indeed androids, of a much advanced generation from David’s. They too must be programmed to know, love, and serve Man. Let’s assume such instructions would be embedded in their programming DNA. They now find themselves in a position analogous to David in his search for his Mommy. They are missing an element crucial to their function.

Robbie Collin at The Telegraph: AI revisited: a misunderstood classic (published 2014)

When the epilogue begins, it’s Kingsley’s voice that explains the ice age and the passage of time. Does that mean David’s story – ie AI – is itself a creation myth, told by these futuristic mechas about the making of their kind, as an attempt to understand the elder beings that made them?

“Human beings must be the key to the meaning of existence,” the Kingsley mecha tells David, and the line sounds odd until you realise these creatures hold humans in the same awed regard as humanity holds its gods. Dr Hobby’s son died so that David might live, and these new mecha are descended from David’s line.

In that light, AI’s ending isn’t twee, but wrenchingly sad. The love we’re seeing, between a mecha and a clone, is a simulacrum, as manufactured as a movie. But if it feels like the real thing to us, what does that tell us about the real thing? In that moment, Spielberg shows us real fear and real wonder, knotted together so tightly it becomes impossible to tell the two apart.

Jesse Hassenger at the AV Club: Contrary to popular opinion, Spielberg found the perfect ending for A.I.

Unpredictability, though, is not necessarily what audiences want, which brings us to the focal point of controversy over A.I., and a major reason the movie is more of a cult item than a confirmed modern classic: the film’s ending. Initially, David’s drive leads him to the bottom of the ocean, staring at a statue of the Blue Fairy, convinced that if he waits long enough, she will work her magic. You may have heard, or even subscribed to, the belief that this moment, with David waiting underwater indefinitely, is the “correct” end to the film. But the movie presses on past this neatness, jumping forward thousands of years. The Earth has frozen over, and an advanced race of mecha-beings (not aliens!) uncovers David. Through a process that is, admittedly, a little drawn out with explanations (including, essentially, two different types of narration), the mecha-beings, eager to learn from a robot who knew humans, agree to revive Monica for David. In this form, though, she’s more of a ghost; she can only stay revived for a single day. She and David spend a perfect day together before she drifts off to sleep, accompanied by her mecha son, essentially a dying ember of human life.

It’s understandable, then, that so many backseat directors would dutifully follow that program. This is not, however, Spielberg’s obligation. The film frequently adopts a robot’s point of view, but was not made by one. By sticking with David after thousands of years’ worth of waiting, Spielberg stays true to a robot perspective while also deepening David’s sadly close connection to human experience, a far trickier balancing act than having David dead-end at the bottom of the ocean. The actual and vastly superior ending of A.I. is more than a bleak kiss-off; it imagines humanity’s final moments of existence (if not literally, certainly metaphorically) as a dreamy day of wish fulfillment. David wants to be a “real boy,” and the scenes with the ghostly Monica turn his desperation and sadness from an imitation-human abstraction to a desire with an endpoint, which in this case coincides with, more or less, the end of humanity as we know it. As such, the sequence also turns the comforting idea of dying happily into something pretty fucking sad. Spielberg hasn’t grafted a happy ending onto a dark movie; he’s teased the darkness out of what his main character wants. David’s artificial intelligence has given him the very human ability to obsess, and then to take solace in his own happiness above anything else.

Mark Kermode at the BBC: AI Apology (published 2013)

And finally, Steven Spielberg in conversation with Joe Leydon:

In 2002, Spielberg told film critic Joe Leydon that “People pretend to think they know Stanley Kubrick, and think they know me, when most of them don’t know either of us”. “And what’s really funny about that is, all the parts of A.I. that people assume were Stanley’s were mine. And all the parts of A.I. that people accuse me of sweetening and softening and sentimentalizing were all Stanley’s. The teddy bear was Stanley’s. The whole last 20 minutes of the movie was completely Stanley’s. The whole first 35, 40 minutes of the film – all the stuff in the house – was word for word, from Stanley’s screenplay. This was Stanley’s vision.” “Eighty percent of the critics got it all mixed up. But I could see why. Because, obviously, I’ve done a lot of movies where people have cried and have been sentimental. And I’ve been accused of sentimentalizing hard-core material. But in fact it was Stanley who did the sweetest parts of A.I., not me. I’m the guy who did the dark center of the movie, with the Flesh Fair and everything else. That’s why he wanted me to make the movie in the first place. He said, ‘This is much closer to your sensibilities than my own.'”

Snap Judgment: The Novel of Podcasts

Snap Judgment is the novel of podcasts for me – each episode is hard to get into, and each story can be intimidatingly unpredictable, as personal tales inevitably are. But overall, the podcast is surprisingly rewarding and consistent. That’s a real achievement compared to more highly-produced podcasts that are like crystals, almost too perfect and artificial in their construction – as Radiolab and Gimlet Media can be, for example.

So consider this a short note of appreciation for Snap Judgment. It’s not my favorite podcast but it does good.

Railhead = YA Hyperion + Culture

I’ve been a fan of Philip Reeve after reading his thrilling Mortal Engines quartet. Strictly speaking, Philip Reeve is a young adult SF/fantasy author, but I found this series to be more imaginative and darker than many other ‘adult’ novels. A lot of his other books have been for younger children, but when I heard that he’d written an out-and-out SF novel called Railhead, I had to check it out.

Railhead is an exciting amalgam of two of my favourite SF series: Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (well, the first two books, anyway), and Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The Hyperion part stems from Railhead’s network of wormholes, connected by – of course – railways; plus the presence of godlike AIs with their own cryptic plans. The Culture part is represented by the slightly-smarter-than-human AI trains, with appropriately Banksian names, plus the well-written action, explosions, drones, and AI avatars. There’s also a dash of Dune and Hunger Games in there, as well.

Perhaps the most Banksian thing – and the most surprising to see in a young adult SF novel – is Railhead’s refreshingly modern treatment of gender norms and sexuality. Some characters are gay, and some characters regularly switch sexes, leading to offhanded passages like this:

She was gendered female, with a long, wise face, a blue dress, silver hair in a neat chignon.

and

Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat.

and

And, to cut the story short, it fell in love with him. And he fell in love with it. In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it.

An unexpected but pleasant surprise!

On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

Books of 2009

I haven’t talked much about the books I’ve read recently, and having finished a slew of them recently, I thought I’d take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year. On the whole, there aren’t as many as usual; work, magazines and periodicals, and notably Infinite Jest, really took their toll.

January

The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. A beautifully-written book about why people make creative works, how they should be compensated (with reference to gift-based economies in the past), and the sources of inspiration. There was a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert doing the rounds a few months ago about nurturing creativity; it’s pretty good, but if you want to know more about the subject, Lewis Hyde’s book is absolutely the place to go. I finished this book in a couple of weeks, I think.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. An incredible novel that I’ve written about previously and took five weeks of sustained effort to get through. I probably finished this in March.

April

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. When I bought this in June 2008, I got a dozen pages in and developed a headache from the second-person narration and shamefully abandoned the book. My second attempt was much more successful and I came to appreciate the literally mysterious structure. I’ll admit that a few of the chapters dragged for me, but the rest of the book more than made up for it.

May

Many of these books were read on a four day cruise to Cork, Ireland.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Much has been written about Taleb’s assertion that people fool themselves into thinking they can accurately predict and/or quantify the chances of extremely rare events occurring (e.g. stock market crashes). Several people have told me they liked the book but can’t stand it because Taleb is so full of himself; I think this is besides the point. He is full of himself, but that doesn’t stop the book from being interesting and entertaining.

I found it irritating that the Guardian condemned David Cameron for talking to Taleb, because of Taleb’s ‘wacky’ views (which were subsequently clarified by Taleb). I’m no die-hard Taleb fan myself – and I’m not a David Cameron fan either – but I think Taleb has things that politicians would be well-advised to hear, and scare-stories from the Guardian do no-one any good.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Much as I enjoyed Infinite Jest, like many others, I absolutely adore DFW’s essays and articles. His essay on television is incredibly foresighted for something written in 1993, although I would have been interested in his opinion of the HBO-style dramas of recent years; his coverage of the Illinois State Fair is wonderfully funny and characteristically introspective. Probably the best essay, which the book was named after, is about his trip on a cruise ship. I’d already read the essay online, but I was happy to re-read it, and I’m sure that I’ll never see the words ‘lapis lazuli’ in the same way ever again… (it also became obvious, from this book, that Neal Stephenson is a massive fan of DFW).

Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner. What are the minds (or ‘mindsets’) that are required to succeed and flourish in the information-rich, hyper-competitive, fast-moving, etc, etc, world of the 21st century? Gardner attempts to explain here. This was an interesting book, but not much stuck with me apart from the later sections on the ‘respectful’ mind.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood. If you’ve ever heard me talking about Margaret Atwood, it is normally about one of two subjects. Firstly, the fact that British people think she’s either British or American. Secondly, the fact that she strenously denies that Oryx and Crake (and the new The Year of the Flood) are not science fiction – which they plainly are – while simultaneously decrying science fiction. Having said that, I have actually read and enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and since I have a real interest in economics and history these days, no amount of science-fiction denial was going to get in my way here. Payback was a good look at the history of debt and the way in which it’s been treated and contorted over the centuries, although it ends on a bizarrely hard-line note (which is probably not surprising given the eco-apocalyptic nature of her novels, but there you go). Continue reading “Books of 2009”

Mass Effect

I was so impressed with the first two minutes of Mass Effect, the new sci-fi RPG for the Xbox 360, that I had to play through it twice and then show everyone at work. While it’s essentially nothing but an extended cutscene, it’s a beautiful, well-directed, well-paced and astonishingly atmospheric introduction to the game. If you have a friend who owns Mass Effect, make an effort to have them show you it. You get more out of it if you customise your avatar’s appearance, as well.

I finished Mass Effect a couple of hours ago – it took me a little over fifteen hours to complete, playing about an hour per day for two weeks, and while those fifteen hours obviously weren’t as good as the intro, I’m very pleased I bought the game. It’s not without its substantial flaw, but I respect the efforts the designers put into creating a wholly original fictional world, and populating it with interesting characters and technology. Writing a science fiction game is tricky – the players will be very familiar with the genre, so you have to avoid stereotypical SF tropes while also not completely confusing those who aren’t so familiar.

(As an aside, I read somewhere that the space opera brand of science fiction has become very unfashionable, hence the reason why it’s vanished from TV and films. I would disagree – it’s as popular as it ever was, it’s just migrated to videogames, where it rules the roost. Halo and Mass Effect serve to demonstrate its enduring popularity.)

Mass Effect’s gameplay is split up into quests. There’s the main quest, which I spent around half my time on, and unsurprisingly it had the more unique and fun gameplay compared to the dozens of side quests which are more or less independent of the main story. I did around a third of the side quests, maybe more, but I gave up after I realised that I simply wasn’t enjoying them. There was one quest in particular which put me off; it had an exciting backstory, and you had to clear up three bases full of robot soldiers. Sounded lots of fun.

I travelled over to the first base and killed the soldiers. It was fairly diverting, but nothing special. When I entered the second base, I thought, ‘How helpful that everyone’s standing in the same place as before’. In fact, the base was identical to the first one, except there were some more soldiers. I felt a bit disgusted by this, and of course the third base was exactly the same, but with some random barriers thrown in. Instead of making the quest more interesting, however, the barriers just made it more tedious. At this point I gave up on doing side quests because they were clearly designed just to consume time rather than actually be entertaining.

Compared to the rest of the game though, this is a minor complaint that can be easily fixed in the sequel. It’s far outweighed by the marvellous story, dialogue and pacing that make me very glad I bought an Xbox 360.

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon’s new novel, Gentlemen of the Road, was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, echoing the lurid and massively popular penny dreadfuls from the turn of the (twentieth) century. Its working title was originally ‘Jews with Swords’ which evokes all sorts of strange images, while the story itself sees a duo of Jewish ‘gentlemen of the road’ – that is, itinerant rogues – embark on an epic adventure in the Kingdom of Khazaria in the 10th century. They’re conmen, thieves, hard-bitten and cynical – but of course, like all true adventurers, they’ve got hearts of gold and are immensely loyal to each other.

I’m a big fan of Chabon’s – I enjoyed reading Summerland, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and I tend to buy his books as soon as they come out. I was a little disappointed with Gentlemen of the Road though. Partly this was because of its serial format, which doesn’t work well when stitched into a novel, and partly its because the adventure, for all its wit and colour, was not all that exciting. It felt oddly cramped, at odds with Chabon’s love of run-on sentences and numerous asides, which often obscured the action.

The world itself, 10th century Eastern Europe/Middle East, with Jews pressed up against Muslim Caliphates, Christian Franks and vicious white raiders from the north, pressed home the point that things were really quite interesting back then, and there are ways for different religions to get along – to an extent. So if you liked Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, you’ll like Gentlemen of the Road.

I had high expectations of this novel – too high, perhaps – but despite my disappointment I don’t regret buying it. It’s an entertaining read, one that’s best consumed at a measured pace, as opposed to my frantic reading. I picked it up on discount for £5 in a handsome hardback format, but I would suggest reading it online for free instead. You can do this without any guilt whatsoever, because it’s still on the New York Times Magazine website. Enjoy!