Random observations on British life

I’ve just returned from a fantastic 10 day holiday in the UK with my family. Our travels took us to Caterham, Cheltenham, Stroud, Bristol, Stoke-on-Trent, Liverpool, Norwich and London. Traveling to another country is one of the best ways to get an education, an appreciation for one’s own country, and an unfiltered sense of where there’s room for improvement, on either side. We’d all do well to get over ourselves a bit and acknowledge when someone else has a Better Idea. Sometimes it’s the little things that make up a quality of life. Here, then, in no particular order, are the ones that stuck with me.

groceriesGroceries in general are less expensive – at least, they were in Liverpool. Sometimes drastically so. Butter is $8 for 16 oz. in the US. Here, it’s 79p (about a dollar) for just under 9 oz (250 grams). So, essentially, $2 a pound. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is around half the price that it is in the US. How can this be – especially when you consider it’s an import? A package of chocolate “digestive biscuits” is one pound in the UK, and about $10 as an import in the US. Hmm… *somebody* is making a killing.

• You know how pre-sliced cheese in the US is basically overly processed industrial Velveeta crap? Here it’s “mature cheddar” that you’d normally find in the gourmet section. These people know how to live!

wind_turbines_-_hadyard_hill_windfarm_-_geograph-org-uk_-_185628Wind power has clearly been embraced. There are fields of beautiful, graceful wind turbines along the countryside approaching Liverpool.

• The train system is great but the on-board wifi is a pain. It varies greatly depending on your destination/line. Often, you can’t sign on or retrieve a lost password unless you have a valid UK mobile number and/or postal code. Virgin train’s wifi only works on my iphone, not on my macbook. The sign-in page won’t load. The user interface for these services is miserable, too. I spent a half an hour trying to sign on during one trek. It kept reloading the page just before I finished entering my credit card info. It’s not much better on the streets. There appear to be precious few completely free wifi services anywhere.

• The first program we saw when we briefly turned on the TV was Law & Order UK. It was exactly like the US version, right down to the “In the criminal justice system…” intro, except for interrogations being interrupted with “Would you like a cup of tea, love?” I swear I am not making this up.

metal-towel-rack• Signs of an advanced civilization: Giant electrically heated metal towel racks as standard equipment in every bathroom.

• Most standard wall outlets have a tiny on/off switch built into them. If you don’t know this in advance, you may wonder why your device didn’t charge overnight. I’ll bet it saves a lot of energy, though.

washer-and-dryer• I’d never seen a single machine that was both a washer and dryer before. Pretty nifty – the fact that it required a degree in hieroglyphics to decipher the controls and took nine hours to dry the clothes notwithstanding.

• Paper or plastic? How about neither? It’s bring your own or buy a plastic bag for 5 or 10p at checkout. Bags are not freely dispensed the way they are in the US. There is also significantly less garbage on the average street. London is a noticeably much cleaner city than New York. It is possible that these things are connected.

• Some theatres offer instant seat upgrades. Unsold seats are offered by ushers at the point of entry. This is a big improvement over NYC! The British do not do standing ovations, though. Or very rarely, at least. This, too, is an improvement. NYC theatregoers seem ready to leap out of their seats for even the most pedestrian performance. One notable exception: Natasha J. Barnes, the Monday night alternate for Sheridan Smith in FUNNY GIRL at the Savoy, got a well-deserved standing O and was moved to tears. I guess that’s because when you get one over there, it really means something.

CPAP users take note: One thing that seems to be IMPOSSIBLE to find in any store is distilled water. The closest we could find was ionized water, which is carried at auto parts supply shops (for the radiator), but is unsuitable for human consumption as it causes nosebleeds.

garden• Having a garden is an integral part of life. Sure, some people have gardens in the US but it seems like everybody has a garden in the UK. It’s a lovely, charming tradition.

• If you’ve never traveled on the British train system, here’s one thing you wouldn’t know unless someone told you: hang on to your ticket! You need it to exit, not just to enter. Fortunately, every train station has an actual human waiting at the turnstiles to give directions and help you if you run into trouble. Also, book your tickets 12 weeks in advance on thetrainline.com and save yourself a LOT of money.

nightlife2• I wish more American cities had the commitment to nightlife that Liverpool has.

• Sarah and I ventured out for late night kebabs in Liverpool and happened to pass by some very husky drag queens in Givenchy gowns, boisterously exiting a place called Heaven, presumably named after the famous club in London. It took all my strength to resist breaking into, “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK.” I’m sure they’d have laughed. Either that or beaten me senseless, which I’d have surely deserved.

kids-clothing• Much like New Yorkers, Londoners have style. Even the kid’s clothing fashions are sharp, yet unpretentious and imply a certain toughness while still being cool.

• For all its obvious advantages over the US, the UK has its sorrows like any great society. There was the very young mother who couldn’t have been more than 19, looked more like 16, pushing her pram (baby carriage) down the street, dressed in her school uniform – grey plaid skirt, white shirt buttoned all the way up, heavy grey suit jacket, hideous green tie. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She seemed absolutely miserable.

boarded-up-shops• There was also a fair amount of boarded up shops. Our friends in Stoke-on-Trent mourned the loss of industry there. It was once the pottery capital of the UK. Wedgewood and Royal Doulton were a major presence, reduced now to a whisper due to automation and outsourcing to slave labor in China and India. Many thousands of jobs lost. Worse – it’s been a few generations now and nobody has the skills anymore to bring it back. As in the US, very few goods are stamped “Made in Britain” these days. Most of the jobs in Stoke now are with “distribution centers.” Order picking at warehouses, basically. In time, these too will be replaced by robots. This is a problem that transcends geographical boundaries, of course, and no market segment is immune. Expect it to become much worse in the future. It is a function of unfettered capitalism and the relentless march of “progress,” but we all play a part. As long as people demand a) the highest possible return on their stock investments and b) the lowest possible price for their goods and services, these abuses will continue.

american-hot-dog• US brands I was quite displeased to see making an appearance: The obvious ones like McDonalds and Burger King. Also Pizza Hut, Subway, TGI Friday’s, KFC and Clear Channel, which as any American knows is to music what all the aforementioned brands are to food. Mainstream American crap is seen as exotic in certain places. It must be said: if you travel to the UK and eat at McDonalds, you should have your head examined. If you drink Budweiser, you should be deported.

• The most important and lasting impression I will take from our too-brief holiday in Old Blighty, though, is the incredibly warm and gracious reception we got from the people here, without exception, even from some fairly rough looking characters. Liverpool in particular has to be one of the friendliest cities on Earth. Perhaps it was partly due to our American accents. I know when I encounter people with British accents here in the States, I automatically feel inclined to go out of my way to be helpful and friendly to them. In any event, I used to love England in part for what I imagined it to be. Now that I’ve had the chance to live the reality of life there for a while, I love it for what I know it to be.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Twilight Zone Interactive Reboot in the Works

Twilight Zone

In the right hands, it could be great. It all comes down to the writing, which needs to have Serling’s bite, and the application design – the user experience – which has to find creative ways to engage the audience to explore a multithreaded plotline without being stupid or obvious. If the technology makes you think about IT rather than the story, it’s failed.

Well, as a matter of fact, I think they’re in good hands!

“Interlude is known for making videos that play like sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure films. The company’s tech first rose to popular prominence more than two years ago with a video revival of Bob Dylan‘s classic anthem “Like a Rolling Stone.” It allowed viewers to channel surf among 16 channels of different actors and reality-TV stars, all lip-syncing along with Dylan’s song.”

The interactive “Like a Rolling Stone” KICKED ASS. It was a seamless and smooth implementation of a great idea, and a technical marvel. So put me down as more than cautiously optimistic about all this. Time, at last, will tell.

Read more about the Twilight Zone reboot here.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

The Minecraft Generation


Illustration by Christof Neimann

“One day last fall, I visited Gus, a seventh ­grader in Brooklyn. He was online with friends on a server they share together, engaging in boisterous gladiatorial combat. I watched as he typed a command to endow himself with a better weapon: “/give AdventureNerd bow 1 0 {Unbreakable:1,ench:[{id:51,lvl:1}],display:{Name:“Destiny”}}.” What the command did was give a bow-­and-­arrow weapon to AdventureNerd, Gus’s avatar; make the bow unbreakable; endow it with magic; and name the weapon Destiny, displayed in a tag floating over the weapon. Gus had plastered virtual sticky-­notes all over his Mac’s desktop listing the text commands he uses most often.

The game encourages kids to regard logic and if-then statements as fun things to mess around with. It teaches them what computer coders know and wrestle with every day, which is that programs rarely function at first: The work isn’t so much in writing a piece of software but in debugging it, figuring out what you did wrong and coming up with a fix…”

This “you’re on your own” ethos resulted from early financial limitations: Working alone, Persson had no budget to design tutorials. That omission turned out be an inadvertent stroke of genius, however, because it engendered a significant feature of Minecraft culture, which is that new players have to learn how to play. Minecraft, as the novelist and technology writer Robin Sloan has observed, is “a game about secret knowledge.” So like many modern mysteries, it has inspired extensive information-­­sharing. Players excitedly pass along tips or strategies at school. They post their discoveries in forums and detail them on wikis. (The biggest one, hosted at the site Gamepedia, has nearly 5,000 articles; its entry on Minecraft’s “horses,” for instance, is about 3,600 words long.) Around 2011, publishers began issuing handbooks and strategy guides for the game, which became runaway best sellers; one book on redstone has outsold literary hits like “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt…

The single biggest tool for learning Minecraft lore is YouTube. The site now has more than 70 million Minecraft videos, many of which are explicitly tutorial. To make a video, players use “screencasting” software (some of which is free, some not) that records what’s happening on-screen while they play; they usually narrate their activity in voice-­over. The problems and challenges you face in Minecraft are, as they tend to be in construction or architecture, visual and three-­dimensional. This means, as many players told me, that video demonstrations have a particularly powerful explanatory force: It’s easiest to learn something by seeing someone else do it. In this sense, the game points to the increasing role of video as a rhetorical tool. (“Minecraft” is the second-­most-­searched-­for term on YouTube, after “music.”)

Read the whole article at the NY Times website here.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

3-D TV is Dead; Love Live 3-D TV

3-d turtle“Consumers were happy to wear 3D glasses at the cinema, which are predominantly the cheap and light passive variety but they were less keen to do so in their lounge.”

Really? What does that say about the Oculus?

That’s part of it, but it’s still a content problem, just like it was with interactive TV. I love my 3-D blu-rays of HOUSE OF WAX and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but have yet to see a decent 3-D version of ROBOT MONSTER, for example.

Read more here.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Modeling misery: A 3D tour of homeless camps in Super Bowl city

Homeless tents outside the Super Bowl in San Francisco

Homeless tents outside the Super Bowl in San Francisco

The folks at Matterport are heroes in my book. To show off their 3-D visualization technology, they could have done a snazzy VR walkthrough of the latest upscale strip mall, or an obnoxious Yuppie’s duplex apartment. Instead, they took their cameras into the darkest corner of human despair – situated directly outside the ultimate temple of societal hubris – The Super Bowl.

“It’s a reality that doesn’t jive with the picture of San Francisco as a bastion of creative and technological entrepreneurship. If society is getting better because of technology, why is homelessness so intractable on the doorstep of Silicon Valley?

…3D technology is making it possible to simulate reality in astounding ways. That could make it easier for people to edit their impression of the world, avoiding things that make them feel uncomfortable. Or it could do the opposite, bringing the uncomfortable realities front and center.”

Click here to read the complete article, including the demo.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

The Joe Franklin Show Archives on YouTube

Joe Franklin

Joe Franklin

Joe Franklin was an American radio and television host personality from New York City. His show began in 1950 on WJZ-TV (later WABC-TV) and moved to WOR-TV (later WWOR-TV) from 1962 to 1993. Those are the stats. In reality, he was the living embodiment of the golden era of showbiz and, in fact, the inventor of the contemporary television talk show.

Thankfully, some of those shows have now begun to surface in an official YouTube archive. On tap are interviews with Fay Wray, Tiny Tim, Andy Devine, Irish McCalla (from She Demons!), Joan Fontaine, Donald O’Connor and Jay Leno. The J. Geils Band also makes an appearance, lip-syncing “Freeze Frame.”

One can only hope this archive will continue to grow.

Browse the Joe Franklin Show archives on You Tube.

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Rube Goldberg competition inspires creativity and teamwork

Mouse Trap

Rube Goldberg's Self-Operating Napkin

Rube Goldberg’s Self-Operating Napkin


Rube Goldberg is the patron saint of computer programmers everywhere. His entire career is a running gag, creating the most insanely complex machines to do the simplest tasks. Having been a developer for many years myself, I can tell you from that this is a clandestine form of job security for many in the IT world.

You’ve probably seen his illustrations. Or you’ve played the game, Mouse Trap, based on his oeuvre. The band, Ok Go, paid homage to him in their video for “This Too Shall Pass.”

And now, fittingly, there’s a competition in schools to carry his torch forward. “Machines were constructed to open an umbrella with an operating time of up to two minutes. They had to perform the task using no less than 20, but no more than 75, steps… Twenty people worked to create the Mary Poppins themed machine, which used 33 steps that focused on the use of marbles and momentum to make things move. Marbles fell down chutes, toy cars slid down tracks and dominoes fell to trigger the umbrella to open.”

Click here to read the complete article.

rube goldberg awards

Andrew Violette of the Purdue Chapter of American Society of Mechanical Engineers team, cackles as he triggers the first mechanism of his Rube Goldberg machine. (Photo: Taidgh Barron, Purdue Exponent staff photographer)


Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

David Lynch Draws a Map of Twin Peaks (to Help Pitch the Show to ABC)

David Lynch's map of Twin Peaks

David Lynch’s map of Twin Peaks

“We knew where everything was, and it helped us decide what mood each place had, and what could happen there. Then the characters just introduced themselves to us and walked into the story.”

Read More: David Lynch Draws a Map of Twin Peaks (to Help Pitch the Show to ABC)

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

View-Master Shows Off Updated Version Of Its Iconic VR Viewer

Mattel's View-Master DLX

Mattel’s View-Master DLX

“Gizmodo reports that the DLX will run a bit more expensive at $40, but some notable upgrades come with the price hike. The Viewer DLX makes up for a few of the slightly annoying quirks of the original. It now allows you to use headphones with the device rather than rely on the muffled sound produced by the phone stereo speaker inside the enclosure. It also is now sporting improved optics thanks to better lenses and a focal adjustment on the top of the device.”

Read More: View-Master Shows Off Updated Version Of Its Iconic VR Viewer

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Mattel resurrects ThingMaker as a 3D printer



Great idea, but… I loved my Creepy Crawler oven when I was a junior mad scientist. This thing is $300. They ought to lose a zero off that, otherwise it’s just another trinket for rich kids. Also, about the video – it bothers me to no end when people can’t carry on a conversation without peppering it with corporate cyborg-speak like “disruptive” and “space.” Makes me want to hit them over the head with a folding chair. All that said… I still want one!

Check out the video

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

What’s the point of music? Ask Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian

Peter Gabriel. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian

“The philosopher Hegel argued that music is so necessary because it rehearses in the language of the body concepts and truths we are in danger of losing touch with when they reach us only through our rational faculties. Music is, he said, “the sensuous presentation of the crucial ideas”. We may – for example – know in theory that keeping going is important, but it can take a song like Don’t Give Up (from Gabriel’s So) to turn a cliche into an effective call for redemption.”

What’s the point of music? Ask Peter Gabriel

Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus

Enter the Museum of Endangered Sounds


“Imagine a world where we never again hear the symphonic startup of a Windows 95 machine. Imagine generations of children unacquainted with the chattering of angels lodged deep within the recesses of an old cathode ray tube TV.”

The brainchild of one Brendan Chilcutt, this site aims to fix all that. Most of the sounds preserved here come from the 1970s and later – Space Invaders, VCRs, dialup modems – but the interface has them all set to loop and you can play any or all of them simultaneously. Or as the site helpfully suggests, “If you like industrial music, try turning on all the thumbnails at once!”


Share : facebooktwittergoogle plus