From the archives: November 2009

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Around the World in Eighty Crisps

Wednesday, 18 November 2009 — 2:25pm | Adventures, Literature

I’ve had a thing for gourmet potato chips since I was very young. Over the years I’ve become so accustomed to expensive high-quality snack foods—fortuitously, the ones that are often promoted as healthy options that won’t kill you quite as swiftly as that tennis-ball tin from the Pringles factory—that I find it very difficult to go back to chips of the ordinary sort. Root vegetable snacks that retain the flavour of the vegetables are a whole order of magnitude more delicious than your average powdery munchies laden with artificial flavours and a surfeit of cheap salt.

I don’t think my potato chip snobbery is a consequence of marketing; I liked these snacks before the organic foods craze ever came to fruition, and I savoured them for flavour and texture alone. But there’s no denying that the companies behind specialty chips pay careful attention to packaging their foods to evoke nostalgia for an imagined pre-industrial authenticity. They appeal to images of the harvest and of kettle-cooking by hand. You certainly see this embodied in high-end brands like the king of root vegetable snacks, Terra Chips (who substantiate their boasts in every way with an astonishing assortment of vegetables and spices), but midrange brands that can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores like Miss Vickie’s (which, by the way, has really gone downhill since it was acquired by Frito-Lay and switched from peanut to vegetable oil) also call upon a rustic ideal where their products, in their words, “remind people of a less-hurried time, when people cooked with care and patience.” We know, of course, that a high-volume national product like Miss Vickie’s isn’t exactly a pastoral manufacture, but that’s how they distinguish themselves from the competition all the same.

I’ve sampled a few of the potato chip brands here in Britain, where they are known as crisps. So far, I’ve been unimpressed, and the potatoes are clearly to blame. I know this from having tried the control group of the global Kettle brand, which is here a cut above your typical crisp, yet oddly stale and inert in comparison to the North American equivalent. Most well-travelled individuals have likely experienced this sort of brand-name dissonance with respect to breakfast cereals; it’s a shock to many a Canadian when travelling abroad that the formula for Kellogg’s Special K everywhere else doesn’t taste anything like Rice Krispies like they do at home.

Then I discovered Phileas Fogg.

Phileas Fogg potato crisps are nothing special, although their Indian Red Chilli mini-poppadoms are one of those unique and delightful pleasures of the British imperial legacy that I haven’t seen before. What caught my attention about these snacks, though, was the branding. The copywriting is magnificent. Far from the usual blurb about the innocence of cottage life, the inscription on every bag aims for a loftier romance:

Embodying the pioneering spirit of the legendary PHILEAS FOGG, our snacks have been created using carefully selected authentic ingredients from around the world to satisfy the most discerning culinary explorer.

It gets better. Here’s the description of their Sea Salt and Indonesian Black Peppercorn crisps:

Indonesia; the breathtaking land of volcanoes, emerald green pastures and the home of our black peppercorns. Here they are known as the king of all the spices and are treated almost as royalty. The pepper farmers are fiercely protective of their crops and watch over them as they dry in the sun. We think it’s worth all the trouble. They give our crisps a satisfyingly balanced flavour—fruity and fresh, with a hint of fiery heat.

And those mini-poppadoms I mentioned earlier:

India. Land of mogul palaces, mystical cities, vibrant colours and delicately spiced poppadoms. Ours are carefully flavoured with hot and fiery red chillies from the Guntur region. Then they are sent to Chennai in the sweltering south to be used in the creation of the perfect poppadom. For an evocative flavour they are sun dried and then cooked to split-second perfection. This gives a crisp, bubbly texture that melts in your mouth, leaving a gentle, aromatic and authentic taste.

If they were really taking this seriously they would have called the city Madras instead of Chennai, but that’s a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. What astounds me is how the brand has co-opted the name of Jules Verne’s quintessential globetrotter, Phileas Fogg, as a great symbol of imperial adventure who brings knowledge and goods from faraway lands to home soil. Their television advertisement speaks of Fogg as a real historical figure! Nowadays, popular fiction in all media is so tied up in licensing and property rights that we see contemporaneous promotional products like C3PO’s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, but one can only wonder what cultural or literary sources snack foods will draw on a hundred years from now, not to promote the original text but to deploy it as an emblem of a more flavourful time and place.

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Additional libraries cannot be launched

Monday, 16 November 2009 — 8:07pm | Computing, Video games

Shortly before I sauntered across the Atlantic, I remarked to an old friend of mine that moving would be far more convenient with the aid of extradimensional portals. The concept I had in mind comes from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many derivatives in the digital age) where players bear containers of fantastical capacity to keep their inventory of material possessions close at hand, but I envisioned it as something like an improved Swiss bank, where you pass through security, deposit your goods in the vault, and pick them up at the same vault at a different branch anywhere else in the world. The vault would therefore be a material analogue to the “cloud” that you hear about in computing these days, a singular storage space with unlimited access points. Not even Gringotts thought of that.

There are a number of considerations that become quickly problematic, though, even if you dismiss the obvious practical obstacles and take for granted that we have the technology to build such a thing. In the legal sphere, what do you do about territorial sovereignty or customs law? And then there’s the basic hygienic objection—what about the risk of contamination and the transcontinental spread of airborne disease? Then again, chances are that by the time humanity is advanced enough that something like this becomes feasible, we will have undergone so radical a social transformation that the policy issues are moot.

In any case, the advent of cloud computing urges us to revisit that old sci-fi pipe dream of the Enterprise transporter: the conception of matter as data. Note that this isn’t the same thing as digitization. What I am speaking of is not the representation of matter as information, but the harnessing of matter in the same ways we harness information.

I thought of this today in the library whilst awaiting an order of rare books. Libraries are socially fascinating spaces: patrons share communal resources, but under a mutual agreement to behave in such a manner that everyone feels the library is his or her private space. People work and study in the library with the expectation that everyone else is silent and effectively invisible. Like car parks and highways in the age of the automobile, the major obstacle to the smooth operation of libraries (from the client’s point of view) is the conflicting presence of others, whether they are typing obnoxiously on clackety keyboards or requesting the same books.

In the world of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, the solution to the overexploitation of shared spaces comes in the form of instances—private copies of dungeons for individuals and small groups to slay beasts and loot sparkling purple treasures without any strangers in the way. The content in the shared world outside of instances often suffers from a tragedy of the commons, where you might be on a quest to kill ten boars only to find that somebody minutes ahead of you has already brought home the bacon. Instanced dungeons ensure that everyone gets a crack at the most rewarding content day to day, week to week.

Should we ever be able to harness matter-as-data—a holy grail of science fiction as unattainable, but arguably more consequential, than travelling faster than the speed of light—libraries would seem to be the perfect candidate for an instanced space. You wouldn’t disturb anybody, and nobody would disturb you; the library would work as designed. Granted, there might be issues with server load when entire libraries have to be copied and simulated for each individual who walks in the door. But the bigger problem is that in the absence of the social and institutional deterrence that others create, nothing stops you from disturbing the books.

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Speaking into the keyboard

Monday, 9 November 2009 — 9:10am | Computing, Literature

A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the peculiar working habits of novelists, which may be a good companion piece to the Where I Write gallery of writers’ messy studies. Margaret Atwood is her usual making-it-sound-so-easy self (“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot”), and Michael Ondaatje’s trademark cubism suddenly makes a lot more sense when you consider that he reassembles his drafts with scissors and tape. And then there’s Richard Powers:

Richard Powers, whose books are often concept-driven, intricately plotted and stuffed with arcane science, wrote his last three novels while lying in bed, speaking to a lap-top computer with voice-recognition software.

To write “Generosity,” his recent novel about the search for a happiness gene, he worked like this for eight or nine hours a day. He uses a stylus pen to edit on a touch screen, rewriting sentences and highlighting words.

“It’s recovering storytelling by voice and recovering the use of the hand and all that tactile immediacy,” Mr. Powers says of the process. “I like to use different parts of my brain.”

If you are at all familiar with Richard Powers’ fiction, this will not surprise you in the least. He is not, to my recollection, the only tech-savvy author to work this way; I seem to recall Douglas Adams saying something about doing the same in one of the essays published in The Salmon of Doubt, although it is entirely possible my memory is off and I’ve been thinking of Mr Powers all along.

Dictating a piece of writing of any length, let alone a book, is not something I could fathom doing myself. I am a deeply nonlinear thinker who takes ideas preformed as block chords and splashes them on the page in fragments of verbal shrapnel, and for me the writing process is largely a matter of bridging broken sentences and putting Humpty together again. This does not lend itself well to finishing long-form works and revising them in drafts.

One of the clear advantages to dictation, it seems, is that the linearity of the spoken word compels you to finish what you begin. But speaking in clear and complete sentences that convey whole ideas is not one of the strengths of a nonlinear mind. Anyone who has listened to me deliver extemporaneous remarks (which account for nearly all of my remarks) can attest that it doesn’t take long for me to break off into tangents and parentheticals. I like the control and precision of the written word, and somehow there must be a way to adjust its nets to capture the spontaneity of speech.

That is where the Apple Wireless Keyboard comes in. You may not have been aware of it, dear reader, but I have been writing this post “blind”. As I speak—and that’s what it really feels like, speaking—I am staring at the ceiling and typing in bed. My computer is on the other side of the room. The experience is most like that of sitting down with a notebook and pen and writing single-spaced within the rules, so as to leave no room for correction, adjustment, or retroactive insertion. The difference, of course, is that I am doing it on a keyboard, which is both faster and less taxing on the wrists.

This method of composition seems ill suited to works of an academic nature, where I have to juggle citations, or even blog posts that rely heavily on quotations and links (like the beginning of the post you are reading now, which was most assuredly not written blind)—but when it comes to forms of writing where the primary challenge is to force oneself to improvise and forge on ahead, it may turn out to be ideal. Failing that, it would still be a fruitful exercise that I am pleased to be have tried this once.

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