Month: April 2011

Your Personal City

The Lhopitallier pharmacy resides high on the elegant rue Soufflot, just before the mausoleum of great people, the Pantheon. If you think that it must have been around a while, you would be right. The pharmacy was originally set up in 1750 by the pharmacist Joseph Bataille a few streets away (on rue de la Montagne St Genevieve) but his building had to make way for the extension of the rue des Ecoles during the sweeping changes brought about by Haussmann, who was redrawing the map of the city. Undeterred, the pharmacy moved to rue Soufflot, where they have now been for 154 years. And everything (barring the lighting) is still the from that move. It will have looked almost identical when your great grandfather walked in there hoping for a cure for his pollen allergy as it does for you today. And it still looks immaculate! It is places like this that make the city feel eternal. But do you ever go there?

The question has a baffling aspect to it. If the pharmacy was no longer capable of answering to the contemporary consumer (/patient) demands, it would just close. Logical enough, but let us imagine if it really depended on YOU, on YOUR choices. Or perhaps even if the whole city took up your behaviour. What would the city look like? Would there still be eye-sore restaurant chains? Would there be pizza places? Would small bookshops still be there, or just the FNAC-like megastores? Would the wine merchants still be there, or would wine be bought at Nicolas or the supermarket? And what about video rentals? Music shops? The bars and nightclubs? The art galleries? And if we extend the idea to common goods, would the parks still be there? Playgrounds? Public pools? Libraries? Museums? The metro? Busses? Free bikes? Or what about alleyways you never walk through?

If you start scraping all those places you never go, the city becomes completely adapted to your needs. The more you think about it, the more you realize that you would not want to live there. Not only would you no longer be choosing your own life if the city was already tailored to you, but the sight of it (combined with the lack of those elements you do not use) will actually repulse you. Now there’s a paradoxical thought to keep in mind the next time you find yourself in a place you do not like. But notice as well the parallel with the virtual world – take notes Google and Facebook – we do not want to live in a world shaped around ourselves. We need to be able to reject to be able to choose, we do not want it done for us. Too much of ourselves alienates us from ourselves, as we no longer see the pegs on which we hang our identity separated from other possible lives we could have had, or still could have. Life is not static, and we would not want it to be. And that is also precisely why we are impressed that Lhopitallier is still there. Even if, or especially if, we never go there.


Staring at the Sun

Now there is something you do not do everyday: looking at the Sun. But other than gazing into the blinding light, have you ever tried to take a picture? And what would it look like? Together with a friend, we decided to give it a go. Both equipped with a camera and a camera-phone, we aimed up into the sky. The results were not quite what we expected…

You will want to look at these pictures in full screen (click on them) to appreciate how photographically deformed our star actually is, with our pretty customary equipment. This first picture, was taken with an iPhone. If you leave the resolution as it is, you may think that the Sun looks like a burning ball in the sky, which it is. But now click on the image, and you will see that it is actually a hexagon. The Sun is a hexagon! If you think about how that can happen, you must suppose that this deformation is the shutter of the camera which leaves its mark in such an extreme shot. However awkward that is, our other shots did not share the same quirk. We found others…

Before you think that the hexagon-print is a camera-phone issue, with it having to fit into a minuscule gadget and all that, bear with us. So out comes the HTC Wildfire to see what happens there with its 5 megapixel camera. We point it up to the sky and … who would have guessed – you can see the rings of Saturn around the Sun! Of course, a picture of the Sun is not the kind of image you would expect a camera-phone to be able to deal with, but it is a pretty neat effect. I am not sure why the picture comes out like that – are the “rings” the last cracks still open when the shutter closes? I would presume so.

It was time to try a compact. We had a Panasonic Lumix at our disposal. Have a good look at the picture to the left here. Admittedly we no longer have a hexagon in the sky, nor a Saturn-type star with rings, but if you look well, you could say it is worse! The Sun now looks like a lemon! It is squashed in the middle and little points sticking out on the extremities. This is probably the biggest deformation of reality from the batch we tried here… there is now no more time to waste.

Our last chance was taking out the heavy guns – a Sony DSLR with a dark filter. Now the Sun looks like a haze in the night-time. Admittedly, a haze is better than what we saw before, but with the dark filter it is almost as if we are looking at a bright full moon. But at least, you might think, it is not lemon. Nor is it shiny Saturn. And thankfully, it is not a hexagon either. But if we learnt anything today, it would be that if you do want to take a picture of the sun, you might need heavier equipment than you have.

The joker on the wall

Now, what do we have here? Political graffiti making a point, but about what? Sarkozy an evil joker in a 1984 surveillance society where we have to submit to the will of the party… Is that the image we are supposed to take home from this clandestine poster? And is the “no alternative” supposed to be a reverse psychology to convince us to vote for someone else in 2012? And is it not a little early for presidential election speak? Let us see what we can make of this poster.

To start with the latter, it is perhaps not completely too early to talk elections. Since this poster was put up a few days ago, Jean-Louis Borloo quit Sarkozy’s right-leaning UMP party to create a new party, an alternative to both the UMP and seemingly ever bungling socialists. That adds another option to a list of possible futures for the country. But even besides Borloo’s ambitions, it is very unlikely that there will be a lack of serious candidates. Couple that with the current president’s serious popularity issues and we are bound to have some animated debates when the campaign season starts. To claim “no alternative” even as a stunt, I would have to conclude, is just false.

But what about the evil joker and the surveillance society? The former probably has more to do with your political preference (and perhaps his jester looks and lack of sophistication) than with him as a political figure. If you do not think he is doing a good job, consider that if he was actually evil, he would be doing a LOT more damage. Similarly you could say that compared to other countries, surveillance in France is not that bad. Is that a sufficient argument? I don’t think so, there is still enough room for criticism.

The most important battle ground for surveillance today is probably the government’s attempts at controlling the internet. But internet surveillance (unlike cameras or excessive police power issues) also has a large personal responsibility component. Could the DDR’s secret police ever have compiled the level of detail attained by the personal files in Facebook?  Surveillance and privacy today are not only about government using its powers, but also about protecting us from each other in a digital world. Without proper regulation, we will all terrorize each other. We have left the realm of just a 1984 Big Brother, you need a new image for a new beast. Unsurprisingly, copy-pasting from the past does not always work.

So what should we conclude about the poster? That the maker should put more effort into his work? From the above, I think we have to conclude that he did not properly think it through. Graffiti is extremely ephemeral, as it might not be there the next day. The least the vandal/ artist/ activist can do is be up to date! What kind of an example would you be setting for future insecure vandalizing kids. I’m just sayin’.

Enjoying your Free Time?

Free time, as a concept, is both the most obviously mundane concept as it is obscure. We talk and read about it so often, but what part of our lives are actually ruled by the idea of “free time”? Would you consider yourself as having a lot of it or rather very little? And if you think you belong to the latter, as having very little free time, does that mean you still get to read the press? Or a book? Or see your friends? Or see that exposition everyone is talking about? Or are you just thinking about how you do not get to laze around in the park counting clouds or the freckles on your lover’s face?

To help us understand what “free time” is in our lives, let us take a famous author to see how he uses it. I propose we look at Murakami’s work. Not because the topic interests him specifically, but you will see that that makes it all the more interesting. Perhaps the most common usage, I think, crops up in this quote, from Kafka on the Shore:

“I was a writer then, with no money worries and plenty of free time, so I could mostly do whatever sparked my interest.” (p.234)

Here free time is understood as the time you are not working. This sounds perfectly reasonable, until you consider that if his free time is used for the benefit of his work (writing), we would already have a vagueness in the notion. This vagueness, or “free time” as a part of work, comes back in Norwegian Wood:

“(…) and so I went to my lectures each day, took notes, and spent my free time in the library reading or looking things up.” (p.59)

Of course we know what he means, “free” from his classes, but the student is supposed to be studying in the library (or elsewhere) as part of his degree. It is not really “free” time as such. Is it fair to consider a time “free” if you “have” to do it for your activity? Not really.   “Free time” is here best characterized as the time you have to do something other than your main activity, it is a time where you enter a “variable use” rather than a “fixed use”.  Sounds fair enough, does it not? But now look at this fellow from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he would not count the student’s library use as free time at all:

“I spend seven hours a day at a workbench (…) then I eat dinner in the cafeteria, take a bath, and of course I have to sleep, like everybody else, so out of a twenty-four-hour day, the amount of free time I have is like nothing. And because I’m so tired from work, the “free time” I have I mostly spend lying around in a fog.” (p.266)

Here the notion of “free time” has been extended to include all life sustaining tasks out of work except for sleeping. Is that really the only flexible factor in his life? But even if we included all these tasks (eating and such), what about secondary tasks like cleaning the house, fixing your bicycle, writing to your grandmother? You still have to do those. Is that all supposed to be categorized as your free time? In Dance Dance Dance, someone seems to think free time is the prioritizing of secondary tasks:

“Now that’s making good use of free time. If you don’t have any-thing better to do, go to the barber.” (p.38)

Such a person would find his “free time” completely filled with mundane tasks. He may have free time, but what good is it really. Within that time span, you work down the list of “to-do’s” inversely till you get to counting clouds (which is perhaps never).

But now the curious part comes into play. When you ask someone if they have read a certain book or read about the “AutoLib” project, they may have read it, even if they had almost no “free time”, because it is part of their daily commute, or they read at lunch time. Similarly they may have seen the exhibition, because they combined it with seeing friends. Now you may  interject, that surely seeing friends goes too far, that surely classifies as part of your free time! I would agree, although it could be part the “things you had to do”, rather than the “things you wanted to do”, although sometimes that can be debatable. Anything can be an obligation high on the priority list, as we could read back in Kafka on the Shore:

“Because I had tons of things to take care of, including spending a lot of my free time devouring books in the school library.” (p.5)

Yes, free time does not have to mean that you can do what you want to, as you may have a lot of things you have to do. A lot of context is required to understand somebody’s free time, but either way it may not teach you very much. No free time does not have to mean that they did not read it, just as much as a lot of free time does not have to mean that they did. But what we can say for certain, is that people with a lot of “free time” may not actually have any time to spare, but they are more flexible at arranging their tasks. If they are in love, they will be the ones counting the freckles on your nose…

You and the trendy shirt

Fashion designers, and the houses they work for, make beautiful clothes. Building on a tradition of craftsmanship and creativity, every season is an almost endless parade of carefully worked-out items. Brutally, they are then presented and judged by an audience as fickle as bumblebees. But it is only when they hit the shelves that it all goes really, really wrong. We are often are underwhelmed and can not figure out why. We picked out the shirt we like best and somehow it does not look as good on us as we thought it would (as it looked on the model). We are disappointed, but the one to blame is perhaps not who you think.

The clothes we pick are done on the basis of being the “coolest” we could find (/afford). And yet, they are not necessarily the “coolest” on us. The mistake we make, is to look primarily at the design, as -instinctively- the fashion houses do. They are focussed on seeking out the design and the look, as this is where they shine in their difference. But this is not where the best clothes come from, for the buyer. The most important difference between a good looking shirt and a clumsy one, is the fit. The rest of the design is only secondary.

No fashion house wants to hear that, as they painstakingly spend their lives coming up with novel concepts and subtleties to keep us looking perky. And yet, the fit is what we need. If we can not have our clothes made to size, then we should be seeking out the house which makes clothes which fit us best. As simple as it sounds, this is what will give us the best looking shirts, almost irrespective of the design. The better the fit, the smarter the look. It is almost embarrassing that we do not dress ourselves that way. Of course it is never too late – perhaps from today onwards…