Real Urban Legends: the Safety of Amsterdam

When I first got here, I stayed in Amsterdam for a week as I waited for the realtor to prepare my contract. That week, a friend explained to me how safe the city was: on the Queen’s Day in 2011, he had a friend visiting from London who forgot her purse on the steps of a house during a street party. She had 300 euros in the purse, and his number. The next day, a phone call assured them the purse was safe. Those who come from crowded big cities are amazed by the decency and honesty of Dutch people.

How crowded it gets on Queen’s Day by Peter Dejong/Associated Press

In the middle of ‘hot time summer in the city’ last week, probably because of the atypically hot weather (27 degrees) I got out of the tram number 2 without my laptop on my way to a lunch appointment. I arrived in the café, only to realize that my laptop was missing. I was already in a panic by the time my friend arrived. So instead of lunch, I got into the tram 2 and continued till the last stop.

I thought my laptop was gone for good. Every time I forgot my smart or stupid phones, I found them. But I feared expecting the recovery of a laptop was too much-even for me, though like a cat always falling on four feet. When I arrived at the end stop, they told me they found my laptop! But thinking I was going to the central station to pick it up, it was still on the tram 2. The officers of the last stop contacted the tram and asked it to bring it back to the end stop. Meanwhile, I had another appointment at three, one I wanted to show up for. The GVB Service & Veiligheid officials offered me a ride so we could go meet the tram and I could make it to my appointment.

Waiting for the tram with the GVB Service & Veiligheid official

I knew my laptop was safe. I totally enjoyed the adventure of riding over the tram tracks in the GVB car. The GVB guys were so cool, they knew the city inside out, taking short cuts, and entirely lacking the love for bureaucratic procedures that is so common among Dutch officials. It was as cool as one afternoon in 2008 when a young policeman let me use the secret tunnel under the Bosphorous Bridge so that I could load my toll card before I crossed from Asia to Europe. Back then, the KGS card office used to close at seven and I was going to return later than that.

It seems in Amsterdam the only thing to fear for is your bike!

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an owl is an owl and a grin without a cat

Chris Marker passed away sometime before the outbreak of World War III on his 91st birthday yesterday in Paris. He was a poet and a cat. Or a French filmmaker, traveller, ethnographer, multimedia artist and photographer. I’m not sure if it makes justice to call him a French anything, as his works defied the boundaries of French cinema and he identified with the interests of more than one nation. He gave up his given name and surname Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve for Chris Marker, after the Magic Marker pen. Marker might have been born in Ulan Bator, Mongolia or in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Île-de-France. He travelled as a journalist and photographer, and worked at Éditions du Seuil as the editor of the series Petite Planète in the 50s before starting his film career. Chris Marker might have faked his own decease and travelled back to the future.

the Magic Marker pens

His short essay La Jetée (1962) is set in an apocalyptic post-WWIII future. The photo roman has a single sequence Marker shot with a movie camera he borrowed one afternoon. It’s hard to stop thinking about the crux of the plot and how it might have occurred to him: in the beginning and the closing are images of a child, a man running to a woman on the jetty at Orly Airport, his falling to the ground, an older man with a gun who looks out of place and out of time. Then there are the unforgettable images of the woman, the light falling on her face in diverse places, in the bedroom sequence, in the Jardin des plantes, at the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, at the jetty. It is painful to watch the experiment. Dark and beautiful. We are always told we are going to die from early on, but the child witnessing his own death before his time is ingenious.

La Jetée

Always standing on the left-bank, Chris Marker explored memory, time, space, and ‘life in the process of becoming history.’ Despite having seen it countless times, it is not possible to do justice to his masterpiece Sans Soleil (1983) here and now. Marker’s curiosity was only tempered by personal whim. In Sans Soleil, he explored various ways of human existence, loneliness, concurrent cultural alienation and fascination, his favourite themes of time, space, memory. Then there were his favourite creatures, the cat and the owl. His vision was the embodiment of humanism in the twenty-first century: equally curious about three children on a road in Iceland, the noro who entered into a dialogue with the gods, and the Japanese engineer who committed suicide when he could no longer bear to hear the word ‘spring’. His curiosity lacked post-modernism, cultural relativism and permissiveness, for he did not shy away from expressing judgments. If he made documentaries, he was not a Frenchman with a camera recording the impoverished peoples or the injustices of the world. He was not much interested in Western Civilization or the World According to Western Civilization. He was not guilty on the counts of romanticism and naiveté.

From Sans Soleil

Sans Soleil is all about well-kept secrets: ‘the Japanese secret—what Lévi-Strauss had called the poignancy of things—implied the faculty of communion with things, of entering into them, of being them for a moment. It was normal that in their turn they should be like us: perishable and immortal.’ Of men and women: ‘All women have a built-in grain of indestructibility. And men’s task has always been to make them realize it as late as possible. African men are just as good at this task as others. But after a close look at African women I wouldn’t necessarily bet on the men.’ Of love: ‘If to love without illusions is still to love, I can say that I loved it.’ Of Pac-Man and power: ‘Perhaps because he is the most perfect graphic metaphor of man’s fate. He puts into true perspective the balance of power between the individual and the environment. And he tells us soberly that though there may be honor in carrying out the greatest number of victorious attacks, it always comes a cropper.’ Of youth and the sixties generation: ‘It was a generation that often exasperated me, for I didn’t share its utopia of uniting in a common struggle those who revolt against poverty and those who revolt against wealth. But it screamed out that gut reaction that better adjusted voices no longer knew how, or no longer dared to utter… But it carried with it all those who said, like Ché Guevara, that they “trembled with indignation every time an injustice is committed in the world.” They wanted to give a political meaning to their generosity, and their generosity has outlasted their politics. That’s why I will never allow it to be said that youth is wasted on the young. The youth who get together every weekend at Shinjuku obviously know that they are not on a launching pad toward real life; but they are life, to be eaten on the spot like fresh doughnuts. It’s a very simple secret. The old try to hide it, and not all the young know it.’ Of revolution and independence: ‘Rumor has it that every third world leader coined the same phrase the morning after independence: “Now the real problems start.” Cabral never got a chance to say it: he was assassinated first. But the problems started, and went on, and are still going on. Rather unexciting problems for revolutionary romanticism: to work, to produce, to distribute, to overcome postwar exhaustion, temptations of power and privilege.’ Of wounds: ‘…copying a few lines from Samura Koichi: “Who said that time heals all wounds? It would be better to say that time heals everything except wounds. With time, the hurt of separation loses its real limits. With time, the desired body will soon disappear, and if the desiring body has already ceased to exist for the other, then what remains is a wound… disembodied.”’

From Chats Perchés

Chats Perchés (2004) is about the street art M. Chat in the streets of Paris, the protests against the invasion of Iraq, and the presidential elections in 2002. In Chats Perchés, Marker expressed hope that maybe the generation x was not so apolitical after all. Like many social, political hopes he entertained, an illusion. He loved hopes even when the illusions wore out.

Chris Marker was among the early visionaries of the digital age, in 1996 he released Immemory, a twenty-something-hour-long CD-ROM of stills, film clips, music, text and fragments of sound. Immemory could be viewed in different ways by different viewers on Apple operating systems 7.5 through 9. It had the following zones: Poetry, Cinema, Photography, Travel.

M. Chat

I can quote here David Thomson: ‘He wrote a novel; he was involved in the French Resistance; in the late 1950’s and early 60’s he made very personal documentaries about Siberia (”Letter From Siberia”), Israel (”Description of a Struggle”), China (”Sunday in Peking”) and Cuba (”Cuba Si”). He was a friend to the filmmakers of the French New Wave, but not quite a part of their group — he was older, more solitary and in pursuit of the ”essay” film. Susan Sontag has called him an exponent of ”reflective or non-narrative film.” Yet none of those descriptions quite suffices.’

Chris Marker came from the future. His origin in the times to come naturally drew him to explore the past, memory, and history. His non-celebratory approach to French quotidian life and himself made Marker a refreshing model for peers, friends and viewers of his films. On the petite planète, he is survived by his cat, Guillaume-En-Egypte. That is, unless the enigmatic director preferred to be with his cat for eternity, in age-old Egyptian style.

Chris Marker commissioned Guillaume-En-Egypte avatar in 2009

“Cat, wherever you are, peace be with you.”


WordPress doesn’t discriminate between Turks and Arabs!

Turk equals Arabs or is it the turbaned avatar?

Why does WordPress think that I’d like to become the master of my domain by registering mechanicalarabs.com? What’s the relationship between Mechanical Turk and Mechanical Arabs? Is it because of the turbaned anthropomorphic automaton engraving I use as my avatar? That supposedly mechanical chess player is known as the Turk. Can someone please explain?!


Tweeting Thoughts: The Allure of Twitter for Ordinary People

The initial choices impact the life cycle of social media tools. The popular 140-character micro-blogging tool has been evolving to enhance user experience with shortened URLs, photo and video sharing applications. Lucky for Twitter, the young and beautiful, the rich and famous, companies and institutions love tweeting. Even luckier, millions of commoners use it.

While Twitter offers the best way of being in the loop, only a minority of Twitter users can ever spit out something interesting in 140 characters: select commentators, museums, periodicals, veteran bloggers, and indie whistle-blowers. At the level of the individual, it takes a Stephen Fry, a David Lebovitz, a social media visionary, business guru, or politician to tweet engagingly. Sure the masses enjoy following a coked-up Lindsay Lohan tweeting about a breakup as her mascara smudges on her pillow or Nicholas Kristof’s heart-rending tweets. But the average tweeter rarely tweets something worth reading. Most ordinary tweeters simply over-tweet.

Stephen Fry as a Simpsons character

Although there may be interesting exceptions, there is no comparison between common people and celebrities. My favourite tweeter, Stephen Fry has 4.594.048 followers, 12,352 tweets, and follows 52,025 tweeters. For the sake of comparison, let’s look at Fry’s Aussie business partner Andrew Sampson (@sampsonian). While quite an interesting commoner on twitter, Sampson only has 2.522 followers, shows a talent for over-tweeting with 34.069 posts, and follows 610 tweeters. Someone in between is the creator of Twitter, Jack Dorsey (@jack). Dorsey tweeted 11.424 times, follows 1.209, and has 2.062.491 followers. Over the past few days, he has been over-tweeting about Bruce Lee. One tweet in which he stated he was discovering and appreciating Lee’s wisdom followed by a couple of quotes would have sufficed. But like most tweeters, Dorsey went into mode overkill and tweeted more Bruce Lee quotes than I could count on my fingers. Common vice. By design, twitter precludes anyone who is not as witty, productive and polymathic as Stephen Fry from being interesting, including Barack Obama (mainly because his staff tweets for him). Overall, the impulse to tweet your life away is great, yet the chances of being interesting dim. Maybe that is why CelebrityTweet, which eliminates the tweets of the common folk, remained so popular.

The Nation, the Pakistani daily, recently hailed Barack Obama (@BarackObama) as the tweeter-in-chief in a piece about the Burson-Marsteller report on the political uses of Twitter. According to the Nation, President Obama set the record among the world leaders with 17.884.061 followers. Most of Obama 4970 tweets are written by his staff, as the ‘tweets from the President are signed –bo.’ The American President follows 675.087, mostly fellow democrats, his election campaign accounts, and god knows who else. Overall, President Obama is the fifth most popular user on Twitter. In the league of nations, his chief antagonist from Americas follows suit. Hugo Chavez (@chavezcandanga) tweets in Spanish, has 3.239.531 followers and 1.692 tweets. President Chavez follows the tweets of 23: the President of Uruguay, PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela), Bolivia’s Minister of Information and Innovation, many a militante, socialista y Chavista from Venezuela and Bolivia. Chavez is noted for responding to 38 % of his messages.

@BarackObama

Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) has 1.198.537 followers, and 306 tweets in a staff-run account. The First Lady follows seven users (her husband, Joe Biden, The White House, Joining Forces, Let’s Move, Obama-Biden campaign manager, and the Office of VP Biden.) The Second Man’s account has 97.708 followers, 301 tweets. VP Joe Biden’s staff runs his account (@JoeBiden) and follows 14 people.

Yesterday’s Twitter crash topped the news, almost shadowing the losses Facebook and Zynga reported earlier this week. Professionals and users complained about the crash of a 4bn social media giant on the eve of the Olympic games. The crash was caused by synchronous ‘double-whammy’ in two data centers. We are told Twitter is ‘investing [even more] aggressively’ to avoid its reoccurrence.

Twitter Crash on July 26, 2012

I’ve been thinking about why so many people found the Twitter outage so very frustrating. I’m following 243 accounts on Twitter and still I find the influx of tweets overbearing. I receive more tweets than I can possible read or enjoy reading. Facebook allows users to tune down the traffic by unsubscribing from the updates of one’s most boring friends. There is no middle way on Twitter: unfollow completely or follow loyally. Twitter constantly throws a mix of important and trivial on your plate. Each time I spend ten minutes on Twitter, I am distracted for another half hour. I follow my favourite people, publications, museums, and blogs on Twitter. Often I cannot resist clicking the link by a beloved publication or chef. I end up spending so much time reading articles, blog entries, checking out pictures and pages. I don’t know how much time becoming a popular tweeter takes for an ordinary person. While tweets are often about nothing than something, writing interesting nothings takes as much time as writing something interesting.

I wonder what you think about Twitter, how it affects your productivity, who you find most interesting. Are there accounts by ordinary people to the contrary?


The Turk at play by himself

The Turk at play by himself

Constructed and unveiled in 1770 by the Austrian-Hungarian baron Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) to impress the Empress Maria Theresa, the mechanism appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent.

Mechanical Turk from the inside

Mechanical Turk from the inside