COLLIN PIPRELL Generating realities, exploring them, losing the thread.


Don’t tease the HomeBot

Posted by Collin Piprell


The future has arrived. Have you looked away from the Internet recently, taken a gander out there at what passes for the real world these days? If not, you’d better take a look.

Some oddly premature future has arrived while you were posting cute cats and inspirational quotes on Facebook. What we generally think of as the present has been skewed, bumped off-center and ahead of its time into a sci-fi realm that’s fast becoming commonplace reality (not to mention fast evolving into even screwier realities we can only guess at). homebotIt’s scary.

A case in point: I’ve just now caught myself responding emotionally to our new HomeBot. This snazzy robotic vacuum cleaner carries two on-board cameras and maps the territory it’s expected to clean, learning from experience and doing its job faster as it gets the lay of the land. Sara loves it, though she grants it certain limitations. On earlier test runs, for instance, she parked the dining-room chairs up on the table to avoid confusing our little home helper and to give it more room to maneuver.

But what good is all this hi-tech gimcrackery, if I’ve still got to do some work? So this morning I chose to leave the chairs on the floor. A bit later I was in my office composing deathless prose when I hear something like a zombie bumper-car rally out in the dining room. In reality it was our HomeBot — it was trapped in a curling stonelabyrinth of chairlegs. A wee shiver ran up my spine as I watched this simple machine, which so much resembled a curling stone, displaying something very like sentience as it tried to find its way clear. It had taken to methodically going this way and bumping into a leg, then that way and bumping into another leg, and then another way. Again and again, it came very close to discovering a clear run out toward the kitchen. Except it always missed the exit by a couple of inches, only to take up the whole search routine all over again. Caught up in its quest, I found myself sharing its frustration. (Not to mention all this was easier than writing.)

“You moron,” I hollered at it. “There. Just to your left. ... No! You idiot.”

Bear in mind I’m talking to a mechanical vacuum cleaner.

Anyway, before I had to intervene, it worked things out for itself. Not quite a moron. And what did it do then? Having escaped from under the table, it performed a couple of victory turns out there in the open, spun around once more, and then careened right back under the table and under the same chair that had last entrapped it.

So I changed my mind. “You really are a moron, aren’t you?” I told it.

Yeah, right. I watched in amazement as it repeated its earlier reconnaissance routine except this time, after one circuit as if to confirm what it had already learned, it darted back out through the proven escape route and headed off for the kitchen.

After it finished with the kitchen, it came into my office. Picture this companionable scene: me at my desk beavering away all the while the HomeBot hummed and whisked away, taking care of business, leaving me free to concentrate on such creative projects as writing blog posts about vacuum cleaners. And so it went. Except I’d closed the office door to keep the cool air in, and my new helpmate got confused. Next thing I knew it was nudge-nudging along the wall in the northwest corner on the room, first one way and then back the other, whining about low batteries.

Low battery,” it said, real urgency in its voice (or so I imagined).

Here’s the thing. HomeBots are programmed to establish and remember the location of their recharging station. And this one’s station lay in the corresponding corner of the living room, which it couldn’t get to because the office door was closed. So there it was with its next best hypothesis, futilely and ever-more desperately trying to get the fix that would let it finish the job.

But here’s the real thing — I reacted the way you might to a pet animal in distress. I experienced a sense of amused concern for this poor wee bot, all hungry and confused the way it was.

“You moron,” I told it, this time more affectionately. I picked it up and carried it to the living room, where I put it down it front of its station, vicariously enjoying the relief as it scuttled up to dock at its electrical teat.

They’re everywhere. Think about it. HomeBots and their ilk are just the beginning. Soon every home will have a robot or two, or three. (In fact some argue the revolution has arrived.  And here.) At least as interesting: These bots promise to become part of the household, even part of the family. You probably think I’m just weird, feeling sorry for a mechanical vacuum cleaner who isn’t that much smarter than a curling stone. (It can’t even climb up and dust the books on my shelves, I was disappointed to learn.) But my responses may be typical.  Indeed bots are being designed to encourage emotional relationships. They’re already used with some success in elderly care, for just one example.

justin-bieberOr how about this? In terms of congenial human-bot relations, we Canadians — who, just incidentally, also invented the telephone, the Nanaimo bar and Justin Bieber — now present you with the super-nice HitchBot. What a charmer, eh? Schmoozing its way all the way across the continent, programming maybe by Dale Carnegie or some such.hitchbot

Speaking of cars and passengers, beyond the housebots as such, our cars are already being transformed. In the near future our vehicles will be directed both internally and externally by clever machines designed to take us safely and expeditiously where we need to go, in a manner and by a route we can leave to our carbot.

No such thing as a free lunch. At the same time digital technology is taking much of the drudgery out of our daily lives — in the process often usurping our jobs (e.g. three million professional drivers in the USA alone may soon have to seek other employment) —  it is also contributing much to the increasingly totalitarian nature of our societies.  So look ahead to a day coming soon when you get this kind of exchange:

You say, “To the mall, carbot.”

“Sorry," it replies. "Your presence is required downtown. Someone wants to talk to you.”

“Carbot! Take me to the mall.”


“Okay, I’m getting out. ... Unlock the doors.”


Sci-fi? Maybe.

My friend Jack’s new Ford performs automatic parallel parking, but it leaves Jack to extricate himself from the space afterwards. And Jack says his car has this perhaps puckish habit of stuffing itself into spaces that he can’t drive out of afterwards. And this is early days, a mere preview of the revolt of the machines, maybe even our eventual supersession by the bots, the evolutionary antecendents to whom humanity gave birth.

So, is our HomeBot just the thin edge of the wedge? The announcement comes to me where I sit in the office: “Charging complete!” I go back out to the living room to look at the thing again.

This time I sense a sinister cast to the way it’s hunkered down there, all fueled up and ready to go again. It occurs to me to wonder: Can we really trust our vacuum cleaners? But that’s only one of a range of responses to our robotic helpmates.

“Don’t tease the HomeBot,” Sara tells me, when she hears about today’s adventures. “You should always put the dining-room chairs up on the table.”


Of earworms and Teflon tunes

Posted by Collin Piprell

Our word for the day is earworm. And the following definition is from the charming animation “Jazz that nobody asked for.”

jazz that nobody asked for“Sometimes a song can get stuck in your mind. Become a little piece of unwanted music, that keeps looping for the rest of your day.

Neurologists claim that stuck songs are like thoughts we're trying to suppress. The harder we try not to think about them, the more we can't help it. The phenomenon is also known as earworms, and the ongoing ‘dim di da da dum’ causes a kind of brain itch you can't scratch.”

I once acquired the equivalent of that little red Pandora’s box in the animation. Back at the beginning of time, when I still lived in Montreal, I bought Live/Evil (Miles Davis), and I used to come home at about 4am sometimes full of beer, and listen to Miles’ 21-minute version of  “What I Say”  two or three times in a row while I chain-smoked in the dark. The ladies who shared my flat finally asked me whether I couldn't listen more quietly, or possibly in some other city, since they had to go to work in the morning. (I was a student.)

Then, decades later here in Bangkok, I’ve come across this album again and, what do you know? I still find this cut compulsively listenable. Which suggests that my musical tastes never really miles davis

Sara snickers. “Unlike the rest of you?” she says.

Whatever. It may be my old Montreal flatmates had somebody put a curse on me, because now I wake up in the middle of the night with this thing in my head, and it won't go away.

That’s right. So go ahead and listen to it at your own peril.

A note on Teflon tunes.

phishBill the Mathematician, who is second only to Al the Alien as a mentor, says nobody else is old enough to remember Miles Davis, and I’ll provoke more traffic to this site if, as he puts it, "You dis Phish and praise Nickelback. Miles Davis is in that in-between stage where he's too long gone to be well known to the online masses, but not so long gone that it can be cool to be really into him. On the other hand, everyone loves the forgettable Phish and loves to hate the even more forgettable Nickelback, and wants to tell the world about both those things.”

So I’ve gone and had a look on YouTube. And both groups sort of give me a pain in the neck. I don’t think they’d ever infect me with earworms, because my delicate sensibilities erase all trace of them bar by bar even as I try to listen.nickleback

There, now I’ve dissed them both. I await the outrage, maybe even an extra visitor to my site.




Hot times: A weather forecast

Posted by Collin Piprell

Forecast: Cloudy times, with a good chance of precipitate moral outrage.


chimp angryHere in Bangkok, and just about wherever else in this world you look, the moral warriors are out and about on all sides making angry chimp faces at each other. So what’s new, eh?

In the course of a recent archaeological investigation of my hard drive, I came across the following screed, composed sometime in the mid-1990s, judging by associated potshards of popular culture and carbon 14 dating of toast crumbs. At some point back then, I relegated part of it to a character in Yawn, a novel (now out of print).


Chloe hated the intolerance that comes with buying half-baked dogmas. At the same time she hated this sort of certainty, she also hated the apologetic dithering of people who couldn’t decide, who couldn’t commit to anything and who—like Waylon and the whole Canadian nation, it seemed—went around apologizing for their mere presence on earth. But the dogmatists were the worst.


You find a kind of free-floating moral outrage at large, these days. What with the failure of the Western metaphysic and changing times and widespread uncertainty about what’s what, the ambient outrage can precipitate around almost anything. If you’re a woman, and you aren’t happy, then this is a moral outrage, and someone is responsible. If you are a black, or a Chicano, or bald or short or stupid, and you aren’t happy, this is also an outrage, and somebody’s got to do something about it. You get entirely unself-critical, narrow-minded moral warriors appointing themselves good-conduct monitors for a civilization and coming up with plans to reform all of society. Converts to such causes tend to show all the intelligence, courtesy and humor of neo-Nazi football club supporters.

With those of us more prone to cynicism than indignation, it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire of moral outrage.

Chloe wrote that in her notebook. It sounded good, but what was she really saying about herself? Cynicism, in the final analysis, wasn’t much different from wishy-washiness. It only posed as something tougher and more potent. It was just as much a cop-out, a refusal to commit to anything.


baby angry

What’s missing is a sense that few, if any, of us feel perfectly fulfilled, and most people accept that as a condition of being.

It’s not, “Let’s discuss this issue, re-examine our own and each others’ premises and see where the truth may lie.” Rather, it’s either accept what I’m saying, and all the propositions associated with it, or you’re my enemy. No, I won’t listen to your objections. You’re obviously a part of the problem.


* I am not perfectly happy; I am not fulfulled. I am not in possession of all the good things that I can imagine.

* How things are (“reality”) is a social construction.

* Things might have been otherwise; and still might be otherwise.

* It can be demonstrated that “the way things are” systematically serves some interests more than others.

* “Reality” should be reformed in such a way that I get my just desserts.

* I am entitled to as much of anything I want as any member of any other group in the society.


Some prevalent and normally unexamined presuppositions (ideas that history suggests are almost certainly wrong):football fans angry

* Societies and cultures may in fact be radically (re)engineered according to a rational plan.

* Societies and cultures can be so revised in what is historically a short time.

* I understand my own nature and I understand my relation as an individual to the larger society and culture.

* I know what my needs and rights are.

* I know how to engineer things to achieve my ends. Or else the determined pursuit of what I want will somehow naturally lead to a better state of affairs.

* If I get what I think I have coming to me, then we will have a morally better situation.

* Members of other groups will also get their just deserts within the new scheme of things.

protestor angry2As Chloe wrote in her journal, converts to causes that appeal to such ideas tend to show all the intelligence, courtesy and humour of football club supporters or jingoists.

I'm just saying, eh?

"What are you saying?" Sara asks me. "What about you and those little children at the coffee shop?"


Homo app

Posted by admin

app (n.) 1. originally from computer software app*lication; 2 (n.)  bio smartphone and tablet app*endages, most commonly specimens of Homo sapiens.

When extraterrestrials finally arrived on Earth circa 2021 for a look around, they discovered that the dominant life forms were evolved digital communications devices. Subsequent investigation suggested that these creatures had only recently emerged on the scene, and at first the aliens couldn’t see what had given rise to them.

But then one team noticed tiny bio appendages dangling from many of the endemic Smartphone and Tablet spp. Even as the digital beings had developed, their evolutionary antecedents had shriveled to largely vestigial organs, more decorative than functional. Later investigations revealed that a pre-Homo app specimen of Homo sapiens, one designated Collin Piprell according to prevailing naming conventions, had foreseen these developments in something he referred to as a central irony of their ageman appended to phone_2

Other Earthly species had already undergone parallel developments. One such example was Haplophryne mollis. “When scientists first started capturing ceratioid anglerfish, they noticed that all of the specimens were female. These individuals were a few centimetres in size and almost all of them had what appeared to be parasites attached to them. It turned out that these "parasites" were highly reduced male ceratioids."

male as appendage to female angerfish_2








Female anglerfish with atrophied males attached.


Bingeing on bingeing

Posted by Collin Piprell

Bingeing writers and binge writing. Traditionally, writers have been notorious bingers. And, aside from any occupational enthusiasm for booze and suchlike, we get binge writing, where instead of turning caffeine into books, as some would have it, writers instead turn whiskey into piss and engage in binge writing in the intervals between their alchemical endeavors. (I first encountered the expression “binge writing” listening to a Letterman interview with Hunter S. Thompson. See "What is writing?")

hangovers joy of

hunter s thompson guardianBinge viewing. The media has given much attention to the rise of binge TV series viewing. With entire seasons and entire seasons readily available on DVD, couch potatoes no longer have to wait till next week for the next episode of 24, Breaking Bad, The Tudors, whatever. Hell, no. They can go for hit after hit of suspenseful conclusion segueing into the start of the next cliffhanger, and the next, and the next right up till it's nearly time to get up and go to work anyway, so why not watch just one more?

Binge reading. More recently we've seen the emergence of so-called binge reading. Probably spoiled by the DVD TV series syndrome, binge readers are unwilling to wait a year or even six months for the next blockbuster novel in a series. They want the damned thing now, now, now. So publishers are beating on their favorite series authors, telling them to get the lead out and churn those novels. That's money we're talking, eh? See, e.g., "Impatience Has Its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster." I've read somewhere that the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin has had fans get so irate at the pace with which he coughs up the next book in his series that they've issued death threats. Here's something from an interview:

It is great that so many people are eager for the next book and certainly these are the people who are paying my bills and allowing me to have a house across the street from my other house. But at the same time, sometimes I just wish they would stop pressuring me about it. It will be done when it's done. I'm working on it. I don't know what else I can say: I'm a slow writer, I've always been a slow writer, and these are gigantic books…

A favorite comic sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams of  Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe fame, produced a few novels that were near genius. The last few were anything but. Reading them, I kept getting this image of some publisher holding a gun to his head and saying, "We're talking big money, laddie. So write us another book. Like now, you should write it. "

Binge pontificating. Isn't all that reminiscent of the "publish or perish" blight, where academics had to generate some kilos of books and papers to win associate professorships or tenure or whatever? And look what that did to the general quality of academic publishing. Yow.

Binge realities. But now we're bingeing on breaking reality, which is a dangerous thing, since a reality has to sit and steep a while before anyone knows whether they've got the genuine article or not. Here in Bangkok, e.g., we've been teetering on the edge of chaos since late December, where events unfold day by day as though we live in a cleverly designed TV suspense series, where the conclusion of each episode leaves you dying to see what happens next, this always being a big surprise. And it gets to be like binge-viewing whole seasons at a time on DVD -- instead of waiting for the morning newspaper to get your next fix, you become addicted to minute-by-minute Twitter feeds, witness to the unravelling of our world in real time.

If the day-to-day events aren’t put in a context of national, regional, global and cosmic change and development, then current affairs is only gossip. My old friend Tony Alcock, a classicist and linguist of no mean accomplishment, says he doesn’t want to read about it if it isn’t at least 300 years old. From that sort of perspective, CNN is little more than the modern equivalent of neighbors jawing over the back fence. And the Twitter universe? Spare me.

Still, in these troubled times I admit I can't stop checking the feed to see what's happening. Among other things, I fear the onset of binge tribalism. Maybe I should just retreat into that Breaking Bad TV series someone lent us.

binging is badHere's a nice take on bingeing from techradar.




Tourists in our own and each others’ realities

Posted by Collin Piprell

titanic distancing ourselves

















“[E]ssentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” 

First published in 1973, Susan Sontag's On Photography speaks to us with even more force today about what cameras and the mass reproduction of images have done to our appreciation of ourselves and our worlds. And she offers this insightful spin on our lemming compulsion to photograph our experiences again and again and then share these images with as many people as possible:

"The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust. And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first, because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and, second, because the project is finally self-devouring. The attempts by photographers to bolster up a depleted sense of reality contribute to the depletion."

Though Sontag couldn't have foreseen how this effect might be exaggerated by the fact that cameras would become ubiquitous, she saw how the process was already having profound effects on our world. In her conclusions to On Photography, she says that

"The powers of photography have in effect de-Platonized our understanding of reality, making it less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals."

Recent items I've posted on this site -- "Colonialized: The Peak Experience" and "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediocritization" -- offer related reflections upon my own experiences of Hong Kong's  Victoria Peak, the Mona Lisa, whale sharks, the universe and my self.

sontag on photography cover




The above image is attributed only to "anon" on the Internet. 


McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacratization

Posted by Collin Piprell

The Peak Experience.

In a recent post, I reflected on the strange compulsion to record every iota of our individual and collective experience and then share it with everyone else, each of whom is trying to do the same. How can anyone enjoy an unmediated experience of night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, for example? (“Colonialized: The Peak Experience”)

There I stood at the rail on the viewing platform, getting a many-elbowed massage from others who had mounted an assault on the Peak Experience. I stood my ground, trying for a contemplative appreciation of what should be an amazing sight, wishing all the camera flashes weren’t destroying my night vision and wondering how these ranks of lemming photographers thought their cellphone flashes were going to further illuminate the city lying hundreds of meters below.

The Mona Lisa Experience.

Mona-Lisa-at-the-Louvre-w-008Then, right there in mid-Peak Experience, my encounter with the Mona Lisa came to mind.

Some years ago I was wandering about in the Louvre when it suddenly occurred to me: This very museum was home to one of the most widely recognized of all the great works of Western culture. Best have a look, I thought. Take an up close and personal peek at this phenomenon.

But there was no getting close to this thing. It was railed off and surrounded by a mob. As with views of the Hong Kong colonial light-creature (see earlier post), furthermore, you had to stand tippy-toes to see over other admirers standing four and five deep, not to mention risk blindness from the barrage of photographic flashes. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile, from what I could see, which was very little, looked more like a wince.

So scratch the Mona Lisa. Sara figured her YouTube Victoria Peak Experience beat “the real thing,” and I got more juice out of magazine repros of the Mona Lisa than I ever did from the real McCoy.

A cultural icon? Sure. McMona Lisa.

The Whale Shark Experience.

Swimming with whale sharks can be awesome. It’s best, I’d say, when the encounter is unexpected and you’re sharing it with a couple of other divers at most. It’s even better when these divers don’t have cameras (or, at least in the old days, when they’ve run out of film). But maybe that’s just me.whale shark 3_2

whale shark snorkelers_2Too often these days, especially on liveaboard dive trips dedicated to finding whale sharks, you get gangs of divers all plunging into the water together going flash-flash, often getting mainly pix of other divers going flash-flash. The shark lurks in the background, figuring it’s past time, if only it can find a way to break clear of all its groupies, to migrate back to deep water.

Hey, but progress marches on. Several years ago, enterprising sports-diving entrepreneurs, not wanting to leave the Whale Shark Experience to chance, started using spotter planes around Western Australia’s Nigaloo Reef. Having drawn a bead on the sharks, they radioed fast boats which then sped off to dump loads of divers as close as possible to the sharks, no doubt massively freaking out all but the hammiest of these creatures.

Not what I’d call close encounters with untamed nature.

Since then, however, commercial imperatives and the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme has gone way beyond the Nigaloo Experience.

Take Macau, for instance. An enthusiasm for glitzy casinos on the part of mostly non-locals has already all but erased the charming Sino-Portuguese colonial architecture and distinctive local way of life. And the boom continues. The 2,900-room Venetian, e.g., the Las Vegas Venetian’s sister development, boasts the largest gambling area in the world. Hell, it keeps a captive Venice on the third floor, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers, even a faux sky that remains benign no matter what the weather outside. This is a new, improved Venice with no rain and no floods and shiny big name-brand boutiques on all sides.

So how do you beat that? Easy. Toss some whale sharks in a big aquarium and invite happy crowds of adventurers to come goggle at them. New casino-related projects include funparks complete with whale shark enclosures so visitors can have a big adventure snapping photos of this largest of all fish species, beautiful creatures that, till recently, had remained rarely sighted and mysterious.

“Twenty years ago, scientists did not know much about what whale sharks ate, where they spent their time or how they reproduced. Historically, seeing a whale shark in the wild was a rare experience, even for veteran divers. Jacques Cousteau reportedly encountered only two whale sharks his whole life.” (“How to Love a Whale Shark,” Scientific American)

But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with the price of a Macau vacation can snap any number of whale shark photos and show them to friends back home who have already seen them a hundred times before on TV and YouTube. Borrr-ing. (Casino developers in Singapore are planning something similar.)

Not that any of this is basically new.whale sharks captives kuroshio-sea-of-the-okinawa

Never mind. Democratization and anti-elitism rools, OK! And who am I to suggest these experiences soon become degraded for both those privileged with the time and money to do it right and for those on a budget. Not to mention for the whale sharks.

Untamed nature for Everyman? Sure. McWhale Sharks.

The Me, Me, Me Experience. Where are we really going with all this? Good question. We’re already photographing every square centimeter of Mars and much of the rest of the solar system. Which is nothing, considering the fact there are untold billions of galaxies in our universe, and each galaxy includes billions of stars and quite a number of solar systems.

The Hubble telescope, for one, is peering into deep space to find that even the apparently emptiest bit of our sky harbors thousands upon thousands of galaxies, more of them the deeper you peer. This video shows what some are describing as the most important image ever recorded in human history. Hubble_Ultra_Deep_Field_part_d

Maybe. But look at this selfie I’ve just snapped.  The self-mediated me. And just watch me post it on the Internet. Thusly. selfie



Whoa. McMe. I guess that puts all those galaxies and stuff in perspective, eh?


The Afterthought Experience.

We’re witnessing the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme. Meanwhile we distance ourselves from our own experience in the ongoing commodification and mass distribution of everything including ourselves.

“Does that make any sense at all?” Sara asks me.

“It probably needs more editing,” I tell her. “Plus I think I might have something like a hangover.”



"Selfie," a recent neologism, appears destined for the standard dictionaries.

"Mediacratization" is of my own coinage, a portmanteau of "mediate" and "mediocritization" hot off the press, and probably doomed to oblivion. "Mass mediacratization begets mediocritization," an aphorism for our times, and, again, hot off the press.

Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."

Photo credits.

"These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa" (The Guardian)

Jonathan Kang, Kuroshio Sea of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan

Whale shark images by Ashley J. Boyd. (Boyd, an Australian resident in Thailand, was long one of Southeast Asia’s leading underwater photographers. A highly qualified diving instructor and teacher of underwater photography, Ashley has logged close to 4,000 dives. His photographs have been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and postcards, while his underwater video has been used in advertising and TV. He has collaborated with Collin Piprell on dozens of articles and three books (all of them now out of print):

Thailand’s Coral Reefs (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995)
Diving in Thailand (Singapore: Times Editions; U.S.A.: Hippocrene Books, 1994, 2000)
Thailand: The Kingdom Beneath the Sea (Bangkok: Artasia Press, 1990)



In thrall then & now: So what’s new?

Posted by admin

people with gadgets on bts

The other morning on the BTS Skytrain I found myself bemused at the sight of nearly every one of my fellow passengers in thrall to digital devices. Each was oblivious to all the others as they pawed away at Facebook pages, e-mails, tweets, games, music and phone calls. One young renegade was actually reading a book.

More than bemused, I was struck by the sense I was living in a science-fiction story. But then, resisting the impulse to check my own iPhone, which was tucked inside my computer bag, I was struck by a thought. (The kind of thing that can happen when you divorce yourself, however briefly, from the digital web.*) I had a sudden recollection of the London-Oxford train, circa late 1970s, bearing its ranks of dark-suited, bowler-hatted men from the City, each absorbed in his own copy of The Times of London.

Not totally absorbed, mind you. Occasionally indignant squalls would thrash through the forest of newsprint in face of the rogue colonial invader (me) in his torn Lee corduroy jacket and scruffy jeans, who would like as not be reading a volume of essays by some notorious Continental thinker, some crackpot wog from the other side of the Channel.

bowler hatted men on train

Then, as on the BTS now, I sometimes felt myself a dilettante anthropologist at large in another world. But where the London-Oxford train was merely amusing, why did I find the Skytrain scenario also chilling? Was it an apprehension of what these ever-accelerating changes might portend for a more distant future that suddenly seemed not so distant after all?

Or maybe I just felt excluded. I should have whipped out my own smartphone and got engaged, eh? Like, get with it, man. I could’ve plugged myself into a Heidegger lecture. Sure. Or browsed the Web for a photo of British business people on a commuter train that I could use to illustrate a blog post that no one would ever look at.

Hey! What a good idea.


Related expressions of unease: 

Zombie nation shutting down 

Getting away from it all: Now and then


People with phones on BTS from the Bangkok Post

Businessmen on train from the Independent

* Getting struck by a thought may not be without its dangers. See, e.g., The Apocalypse (


Colonialized: The Peak Experience

Posted by admin

vic peak sara enhBelow us lies a massive growth of porous luminosity, its cellular steel and glass exoskeleton inhabited by various species of soft light. A colossal marine organism has emerged to colonize the harborside. Brighter creatures enjoy mutualistic relations with the colonial host. Some of them, Logo spp., are neural parasites that prey on humans.

Sara and I stand atop the Peak Tower with a bunch of other creatures, not yet colonial but through the wonders of digital technology fast evolving that way. We stand four or five deep at the railing, cameras and phones held high overhead, obsessively flash-flashing at the softly throbbing creature below us for some important reason that no one knows, driven by a primordial imperative to record innumerable images of this thing we’ve been led to, and then share them by means of social networking until, ideally, every sentient being in the universe has witnessed the giant light-creature on the shore.

Lo, and verily. And eventually, as we did once before this day, we come to stand in a queue of thousands to enter the tram, this time to be delivered back down from the Peak for reabsorption by the light creature. As we descend, it becomes progressively less apparent that this thing is in fact one organism.

During our precipitous descent, we catch glimpses up through bright high-rise canyons where members of the colony dwell.

Sara later reveals the fact she had already experienced the Peak Experience on YouTube that very morning. And then, just to rub it in, she say she did this thing without suffering interminable waits in line for the tram and pushy mobs on the viewing platform.

“Jasus, jasus,” I tell her. “We could’ve stayed in Bangkok and saved the airfare, not to mention the hours spent standing in queue.”

“Yes,” she says. “But it freshens the mind to visit different places.”

And to record every square centimeter of the buggers, and take the same photos millions of other travelers have and try to share these experiences with someone, except that everyone has already experienced them, at least on YouTube.ozone hong kong

“Did that video really convey the Experience?” I ask her.

“No. It was much better. They took it when there was some special light show.”

Whatever. As Sara pointed out, there was plenty more to enjoy in  Hong Kong.


See "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacrization" for more on these ideas. 

Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."

Notes. The illustration doesn't begin to do justice to the Victoria Peak Experience.

The other shot is from the Kowloon side of the harbor on the 118th floor of the Ritz  Carleton, atop the ICC Building. The Ozone is reportedly the highest bar in the world. (I believe the tall building in the top left corner of the first photo is the ICC Building.)


Novels: Mental health threat or therapy?

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 "The solitude of writing is ... quite frightening. It's close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch." Nadine Gordimer

"It's nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of." Shirley Hazzard

It's often said that the writing of novels can be a symptom, maybe even a cause, of insanity.

Perhaps a person does have to be mad to write novels, to spend so much time alone spinning realities that no one shares till, God grant, readers enter the process. (Novelists who make enough money are of course exempt. In fact a lucky few, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown among them, are considered very clearly sane indeed.)

Not so widely recognized is the danger reading novels was once thought to pose to one's mental health.

Bangkok-based crime writer Christopher G. Moore has recently posted an interesting item regarding changing conceptions of madness over the years. His post included this 19th-century flyer.

mental hospital reasons-for-admission
nymphomania cover

"Novel reading" is listed among ways one could gain admittance to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Directly beneath that appears "nymphomania." That was probably only for reasons of alphabetical order, yet there is a more substantial connection between reading novels and nymphomania. Some nineteenth-century authorities believed that reading novels, in itself dangerous to your mental health, might also contribute to nymphomania. Here's a poignant note from a case study reported in Nymphomania: A History, by Carol Groneman (reviewed in the New York Times):

'Mrs. R., described as a short, stout, recently widowed twenty-year-old woman with a lively disposition, came to Dr. Bostwick out of desperation. She explained, "If I can't be relieved of this agonizing condition, I am certain that the struggle between my moral sense and lascivious longings must soon send me to the grave." She blamed reading novels and attending gay parties in her youth as the cause of "my imagination [being] wrought up to the highest point."'

Ms Groneman also reports a case where a woman so afflicted was advised by her doctor to give up writing novels.

As Chris Moore suggests, however, fashions in madness come and go. Given the number of people who appear to be at work or about to begin work on novels these days, those inclined to conformism might fear that not writing a book was a sign of serious abnormality. In an article entitled "Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break," Colin Robinson says this:

'According to Google, some 130m titles have been published since the first books took form on the desks of monks. This overwhelming catalogue is today being supplemented at a rate never before seen in the history of the book. Another industry statistician, Bowker, reports that nearly 1.8m new titles were published in 2012, an increase of half a million in just three years.'

Not so long ago, Julian Barnes could offer this advice: "It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them."

No longer true, eh? It is no longer easy not to be a writer, and ever-larger portions of our populations must face concomitant threats to their well-being, large dollops of money rarely being one of these.

In conclusion, I'll offer a  contrarian perspective from Graham Greene:

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”