Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

“The story-within-a-story done right” : review of “The World House”, Guy Adams, SF Site 2010

Original here. Despite my enthusiasm here – and what I wrote in the penultimate paragraph – I didn’t read any of the succeeding books in this series. I was never, even at my adolescent height of enthusiasm for SF/fantasy, all that into the multivolume series which dominate the field.

The World House
Guy Adams
Angry Robot, 2010


Done properly, the story within a story can have a vertiginous effect, a sense of being caught in an infinite loop, best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture on “The Thousand And One Nights” collected in the book Seven Nights. The world-within-a-world story can have a similar effect. In a way, the hidden world is a theme not only of literature — from Horton Hears A Who to, it could be argued, the three stages of the afterlife in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dante enters the afterworld through “a dark wood”) — but of myth of the underworld may be the first world-within-a-world story.

Guy Adams has created a rollercoaster of a story set in a world within a box — a world-within-a-world that is itself a Divine Comedy. For the box is, for most of those inside, a kind of after-life — those humans who enter the box do so at a moment of imminent death in this world — and it is certainly more an Inferno, or at best a Purgatorio, than a Paradiso. This is a world created out of the nightmares and fears of humans themselves, contained inside a box that is in fact a prison, with a very special prisoner.

The first third or so of the book is taken up by gradually introducing the multifarious cast of characters. From Spain during the Civil War to Harlem in the early 30s to the late night bars of New York in the 70s to Florida and an unnamed corner of England today, the pre-box lives of the characters are sketched artfully and speedily.

We begin with Miles, an English antique shop owner with poor financial judgement and a gambling habit, who gets on the wrong side of some very nasty characters indeed, and just before they blow him away on account of an unpaid debt he vanishes into the box. We also meet Penelope Simmons, a fun-loving Boston socialite in the 30s, who, about to be raped and murdered by her psychopathic fiancé Chester and his chauffeur at the end of a night out in Harlem, also disappears into the box. Both turn up at the same time and in the same area of the rambling, seemingly infinite house, which is where most of the action in the world takes place. If there is a main protagonist to the book, it is Miles, whose mordant world-view and lack of appetite for heroics, and lustful longing for Penelope (in fairness to Miles, at their first encounter Penelope is totally naked having escaped from Chester’s clutches just in time) are an earthy anchor point as the surreal action ensues. Miles and Penelope luckily team up with Carruthers, an Edwardian big game hunter and general man of action along the lines of Lord John Roxton from The Lost World who is determined, with admirable pluck, to escape the box altogether.

Interspersed with the stories of the box’s human inhabitants are brief vignettes of the story of some kind of super-powerful entities, probably extraterrestrial, who are responsible for the box’s existence. The box is a kind of prison for a renegade entity, one who stayed behind to enjoy tormenting the puny, pitiful humans whom its fellows had just been bored by.

In the early stages, it seems at times that Adams is throwing in yet another character from yet another setting, seemingly at random. As the story progresses, we realise that there are connections and commonalities there. And there seems to be another kind of inhabitant of the box — who seems able to exit and re-enter both the box and our own timeline. Alan Arthur, an academic in modern Florida with a large chunk of his memory missing, is drawn to this box (which, unsurprisingly for an artefact of such power and mystery, has been the subject of confused and fragmentary articles in some of the more out-of-the-mainstream media) for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses.

Too much more would give away not only the plot but the pleasure of reading the unfolding of this intricate tale. The world of the box is one of subtly altered reality, where benign seeming surfaces mask mortal dangers. From a jungle to snow-capped mountains to a sea of literal dreams, there are all the unnatural environments that one could think of. This may be a kind of after-life, but the box is a highly lethal place. Most of the visitors have a short life expectancy, and many resort to a brutish subhuman existence of cannibalism and fear.

Some of the most endearing characters are, unfortunately, not with us for long — although the conclusion does raise the possibility that the arrows of causality may have to be tinkered with, if not actually reversed. There will be a sequel, Restoration, which I for one will certainly be reading to see where the ride will go next.

World-within-a-world stories, like stories-within-stories, can be horribly self-indulgent and dull. After a while, the reader can lose interest in a story in which anything can happen with no real consequences, or in which random settings can be created. The crucial trick which Adams pulls off is to create compelling characters whose destiny becomes a matter of all-consuming interest in the reader. Adams is also adept at keeping the various strands of his highly productive imagination together, and creating a real sense of nightmare and indeed of menace in the story.

Laptop Warriors – on the “Stealing the Network” series. SAU Blog, October 2007

As it stands, my last contribution to the Social Affairs Unit blog is this piece on two novels written by (firstly) Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig, and (secondly) Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Tim Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker.

Even more is written about “cyber war” now than back in 2007 , though this paper persuasively argues that “war” is not the correct terminology for cyber attacks.  

As novels these books are pretty awful, although I did like the opening section about

Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box
by Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2003
Paperback, £25

Stealing the Network: How to Own A Continent
by Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Timothy Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2004
Paperback, £22

Last May, the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a statue of a Red Army soldier lead to vigorous protests from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and ethnic Russians in Estonia and abroad. Most media coverage in the West focused on another confirmation of Putin’s self-confidence, and of resurgent Russian sabre-rattling. Less remarked on – and less reported – was the fact that an EU member was virtually assaulted – and “virtually” here means the contemporary sense. An army of computers attacked Estonia’s computer-based infrastructure. As the Estonian Minister for Defence later told Wired:

The attacks were aimed at the essential electronic infrastructure of the Republic of Estonia. All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers – the phone books of the internet – felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.
[A botnet is basically a collection of computers whose security has been compromised and are being used for some nefarious purpose, usually unknown to the computer’s owner.]
As Wired adds portentously:

Welcome to Web War One
Computer-phobic readers, if such a breed read a web-based publication, may be forgiven a sigh of exasperation. The phrase “Revenge of the Nerds” has rarely seemed more apt – for not only are the computer nerds and geeks derided in schools and college now the world’s richest men, they are now claiming martial glory as their own.
So, war too goes digital. War has always been one of the staples – if not the staple – of popular fiction for men and boys of all ages. War and adventure are linked so closely that we often hear heard the war in Iraq described as “a foreign policy adventure”.

Of course, while the martial virtues and the computing virtues seem, at first, diametrically opposed, on closer inspection this is not the case. Someone once remarked that anyone who uses the phrase “military efficiency” without irony has never been in the army.

Be that as it may, the military mind is methodical, plans ahead, tries to break down the unknowable chaos of war into manageable units one can train and prepare for, and while the outcome is vastly more unknowable than the in theory entirely predictable response of a computer, shares with computer programming a mission of controlling the world.

Syngress specialise in computer security manuals, most of which are in a traditional format. They also publish the Stealing the Network series, which has become a series of “cyber-thrillers”, fictional stories about hackers using real techniques and technologies. How To Own the Box, the first in the series, is a set of short stories, while How To Own A Continent is a novel.

Jeff Moss, President & CEO of Black Hat, Inc. in his introduction (both books have slightly different introductions, with essentially the same material) is at pains to point out that “hacker” is abused in the media as a term for computer criminal. “Hacker” originally simply meant competent programmers and system administrators. They would “hack up” the source code of a system to fix things, because they would have the big picture of the entire system in mind at all times – unlike less competent computer folk who may know their small patch very well but have no vision of the entire system.

You would not describe a criminal auto mechanic as simply a mechanic, and you shouldn’t do the same with a hacker, either.
The introduction is a useful primer for understanding hacking. Interestingly the hardest attacks to defend against are not the technical assaults of viruses and worms, but physical attempts to literally hack into systems and what are called social engineering attacks – essentially closest to the traditional confidence artist’s manipulation of people’s gullibility, naïvete and trust.
The popular image of brilliant hackers taking over the Pentagon with a few keystrokes belies the sheer hard work, patience and ingenuity hacking seems to require. Hackers, as portrayed in the book, generally exploit the inefficiency and laziness of most system administrators. They remind me somewhat of the Oakland Athletics, the heroes of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball – poor outsiders in the world of baseball who methodically identified the great inefficiencies of the traditional scouting and recruitment system and played well above their weight.

The books are written by committee – both boast nine contributors, some of whom go by a nom du hack such as “FX”, “131ah” and “Fyodor” (yes, a tribute to Dostoyevksy, and Fyodor is properly embarrassed that a Google search for “Fyodor” lists him about the great proto-existentialist), some of whom such as Kevin Mitnick have gained fame well beyond the world of hacking.

How To Own A Continent boasts one of the most compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read. Much of both books is imbued with a kind of edgy nihilism, slightly contemptuous of the non-hacker and proud of technical competence and ingenuity. This opening chapter has a punch and narrative drive that sucks the reader in:

How much money would you need for the rest of your life? How much would you need in a lump sum so that you never had to work again, never had to worry about bills or taxes or a house payment. How much to live like a king? Your mind immediately jumps to Bill Gates or Ingmar Kamprad with their billions. You think that is what you would need.
Ah, but what if you wanted to live in obscurity, or at least were forced to? It’s not possible with that much money. You might actually need a billion dollars to live like royalty in the United States. It can be done; a few people live that way, but their lives are reality TV. If that kind of attention means the end of your life, either by a charge of treason or a mob hit, then the US isn’t an option. The US has a culture of being intrusive, everyone knows too much about everyone else.

The narrator explores the pitiless logic of this completely self-sufficient life – and surely total self-sufficiency is a common fantasy? For most of us, it will always stay in the world of fantasy. As the narrator explains,
It was not without its costs; several years of my life and my wife. Now I’m alone, there’s no one to take care of but myself. No reason to stay in Virginia. No distractions.
Over the rest of this chapter, a remorseless routine is laid out. It is utterly focused, but focused on what? We have hints, but no clear picture. The next chapter transfers the action to Lagos, and the plot proper commences. Some of what follows is impenetrable even if you are paying attention:
He logged in to the mac3 machine with another one of his stolen accounts, and switched over to his wstearns context by running the wstearns shell:
[mac3:~] ajr % ~mrash/Public\Drop\ Box/.shells/zsh-wstearns mac%

He next ssh’ed into the VA teach cluster using wstearns’ password:

Mac% ssh wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu
wstearns@gateway.cluster.vatech.edu’s password:

I doubt Robert Louis Stevenson or Captain Marryat could write a ssh’ing into a cluster scene to match that. However, generally the detail is either incidental or secondary to the thriller aspect of the plot, and in the context of the scene perfectly understandable. What matters is not what the characters type or what technology they use (though the authors obviously take considerable pride in the technical accuracy of their work) but the insight into the hacker mindset – problem-solving, logical, methodical, patient.
Military metaphors abound in the hacking world. Most obviously, the prefix war – as in wardialling, wardriving, warwalking and even warbiking. The etymology of all these terms is rooted in the 1983 film War Games.

War-driving, walking and biking all involve searching for wireless networks while in various forms of transport – either as a hobby, to identify unsecured networks to use for free, or for some other purpose. All you need is the free program NetStumbler and a wireless enabled laptop or PDA, and off you go on this addictive (as I can attest) if rather pointless (unless you actually are motivated to, and know how to, use the information) activity. The industry critics who have praised the books describe them as “attack orientated”.

How To Own A Continent is predominantly set in Africa, and while Conde Nast Traveler may not be commissioning the authors for sweeping travelogues anytime soon, their pithy style is in its own way evocative:

He took a taxi to Hotel Le Meridian. Everything in Lagos was dirty and broken. Even with its four stars and a price tag of $300 per night, the hotel’s water had the same color as Dr Pepper. You couldn’t even brush your teeth in this water let alone drink it. He went down to the bar area, and had a Star beer and chilli chicken pizza. It was not long before the prostitutes hanging around made their way to him. He was blunt but polite with them – he was in no mood for a dose of exotic STDs, and besides, he had work to do the next morning.
This is the world of the hacker – immensely proud of their competence and focused on their work. And how different is this from other heroes of popular, male-orientated fiction? Read Bond (rather than watch the glib cartoons of movies) and what comes across is Fleming’s hero’s professional pride, his self-recrimination when things go wrong, his satisfaction when things go right.
Male popular fiction has historically been criticised for dealing with the complex world of emotions and feelings by ignoring it. Put simply, the predominantly masculine world of the martial adventure story ignores, idealises or denigrates women. Perhaps the funniest moment of unintentional humour comes in the How to Own the Box story h3X’s Adventures in Networkland by FX.:

h3X is a hacker, or to be more precise, she is a hackse (from hexe, the German word for witch).
h3X occupies herself in the course of trying to exploit an American university’s vulnerable printer servers (I think). FX, we learn from the introductory biographies, is male. It’s an age-old literary problem – can a male writer convincingly convey a woman’s inner life, and vice versa? Perhaps the reader can judge if FX gets it right:
Since it’s about one in the morning (CET) on a Thursday (actually it’s Friday already), h3X decides to pay the local house club a visit and see if there is a nice piece of meat to play with in place of the printer. She puts the freshly discovered devices in her list file and makes a note about that one particular go-and-never return box. Then it’s time for DJs, vodka-lemon, and possibly some dude with a decent body and half a brain – though she knows that’s a hard-to-find combination.

It seems perhaps slightly ungallant to suggest that h3X’s persona might form some kind of wish fulfilment for hackers – but passages like the following make it difficult to suggest otherwise:
Inspecting about 50 different Cisco router configurations for hints on the application of this particular black or blue box is as boring as it sounds. You need to proceed methodically and stay concentrated, and this basically sucks, since you don’t see real progress being made. It’s the same for h3X, but females are sometimes a lot better at concentrating than males, and so she spends the better part of the night, trying to figure out interconnections and other facts about the network. After that, she barely has enough energy left to sit on the couch and watch some TV before she dozes off. The phone rings several times in an attempt to make this attractive, young member of society participate in what people call nightlife, but it goes unheard.

There’s a bathos to the last line that couldn’t be bettered. “What people call nightlife” indeed. But while it is easy to mock the occasional clunky dialogue and characterisation, and the occasional confirmation of the computer nerd stereotype, the books have a compelling power. For me at least they pass the Pageturning Test, along with the Reread Test the only assessment of a thriller that really counts.
And like boy’s fiction of earlier eras, the aim is not to produce a masterpiece of psychological penetration, or to faithfully chart the emotional life of the hacker, but to recount tales of derring-do and adventure. These adventures take place almost entirely in virtual space, but the sense of excitement is still there.

And so what if it is often incomprehensible? I barely understand the naval manoeuvring in Patrick O’Brian, but still derive much pleasure from the books (granted, much of this is from Aubrey and Maturin and the precision of the description of the world, rather than the action as such) In his review on this site of the film Miami Vice, Christopher Peachment argued that:

Not understanding the professional jargon is one of the great joys of watching any new American TV series or film. Think back to the beginnings of ER. It took several shows before you could follow what the doctors were shouting over the mayhem and blood. So too with The Shield, currently the best show on British TV and nearly impenetrable thanks to the cop’s street slang.
And the art of skipping the boring or impenetrable is part of the art of reading (although this can be taken too far).
Finally the universe of Stealing the Network is far from amoral. Just as in boy’s stories of the past, the good are rewarded and the bad punished. In the story Just Another Day At the Office in How To Own The Box, the anonymous protagonist begins highly-paid industrial espionage against his own employer, A42:

A42 was contracted by the U.S. Government to research new technologies for a next-generation stealth-landmine.
Obviously this is a particularly high-security workplace, and our narrator uses a variety of ingenious technical attacks, physical attacks, and social engineering to derive the information. The Epilogue, while lacking much local colour, summarises the disaffection of the successful traitor (and is reminiscent of Henry Hill’s closing monologue in Goodfellas):
I can’t disclose much about my location. Let’s just say it’s damp and cold. But it’s much better to be here than in jail, or dead. I thought I had it made – simple hacks into insecure systems for tax-free dollars. And then the ultimate heist: breaking into a sensitive lab to steal one of the most important weapons the U.S. had been developing. And now it’s over. I’m in a country I know nothing about, with a new identity, doing chump work for a guy who’s fresh out of school.
Proud of their profession, daring, ingenious, patient, methodical, contemptuous of “chump work”, playing the game for the game’s sake more than for the supposed casus belli – the hackers of the Stealing The Network books are not so far from the military heroes of popular literature as we might think.

Piece on cardiac surgery in Times Literary Supplement

I have a piece in the current TLS – full text behind a subscription/paywall but here is a preview…

A Medical Education

In the current TLS I have a review of two books on cardiac surgery. One is Stephen Westaby’s  memoir of his career, the other is Thomas Morris’ historical perspective.


The full text is not freely available online, so here is the bit the TLS have made available to tease you all:

It is tempting to place Stephen Westaby’s Fragile Lives, a memoir of his career as a heart surgeon, in the category the journalist Rosamund Urwin recently called “scalpel lit”; following Atul Gawande’s Complications (2002) and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017), here is another dispatch from a world arcane even for the majority of doctors. To some degree, Westaby’s book follows the Marsh template. In cardiac surgery as in neurosurgery, life and death are finely poised, and even minor technical mishaps by the surgeon, or brief delays in getting equipment to theatre, can have…

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“our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise”

The geodesic dome  was the brainchild of Buckminster Fuller,  a polymath perhaps noted best for the number of his ideas than the successful execution of any of them. Geodesic domes are perhaps the most emblematically retro-futurist structure – in the 1980s, one thought we would be living in domes on the moon by the year 2000.


At TreeHugger.Com, Lloyd Alter has a piece on his own experience of owning and living in (or trying to) a dome. The whole thing is worth reading, especially this closing section:


Lloyd Kahn of Shelter Publications wrote two books about dome building in the early seventies and built many of them. He wrote many years later:

Metaphorically, our work on domes now appears to us to have been smart: mathematics, computers, new materials, plastics. Yet reevaluation of our actual building experiments, publications, and feedback from others leads us to emphasize that there continue to be many unsolved problems with dome homes. Difficulties in making the curved shapes livable, short lives of modern materials, and as-yet-unsolved detail and weatherproofing problems. We now realize that there will be no wondrous new solution to housing, that our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise.

He goes on to describe the waste of materials (cutting triangles out of rectangles), the problems with plastics, the impossibility of roofing them properly, the issues of wasted space.

I learned from my dome why we have roofs that are different materials than walls, why we have roof overhangs, why windows are vertical instead of sloped, why square is better than round. Useful lessons, and an interesting ride getting here.

But with every generation there is revived interest in geodesic domes and I only have one bit of advice: Don’t do it.

When technology doesn’t take: Update on #EdoBlocks and #Flic

A while back, I blogged enthusiastically about Edo blocks. These are Lego-ish blocks made of cardboard. At the time, they had proved great fun to make. They seemed to be a wonderful addition to play. And yet, months later, they moulder unused by actual children, taking up space.

Similarly, I blogged about Flic, a “wireless smart button” which again seemed just wonderful initially. And yet, again months later, Flic is largely unused. In this case, Flics was all too attractive to small children who rapidly disassembled them. The user interface of the Flic app was very easy to use, and as my blog post seemed to indicated there were all sorts of exciting potential uses. And yet, and yet …

In the initial assembly of the Edo blocks, it was rather slow going, and my children were more attracted by the cardboard box the Edo blocks came in than the blocks themselves. Perhaps this was prophetic. Edo seems like something that should hugely appeal to children who love Lego and making their own forts and camps out of various cushions and blankets. But perhaps it is putting too much of a structure on this kind of play?

Flic still strikes me as a potentially exciting technology. Again, however, there is a certain worthiness about it. It is the kind of thing that should be useful, that I should find a use for. Rather, perhaps, than something that has an immediate, truly intuitive use (and is “intuitive” one of the great abused words of our time?)

Both Edo and Flic are technologies (for a cardboard creation is a technology as much as a wireless switch) which should work, should be fun, should be part of our lives.

There is an increasing tendency to depict technology as an unstoppable force which it in some way wrong to even try to resist. This leads to a habit of mind that sees the failure to adopt a technology as a moral failing on the part of the individual, rather than an issue with the technology itself, or with the context it is being placed in.


Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.


And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here