Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conversations with a smartphone

There is a kind of eager beaver who is itching to touch his touch pad, for nobody clicks any more these days.  Conversations with such folks can be stupefying.  Follow, for instance this recent conversation with a friend, who has his iphone handy for every occasion.  Commenting on anything, that has even a hint of speculation, can be hazardous.  “It looks like it might rain this evening” I said, one day—I am not a gardener, nor a farmer--the comment was one made in passing interest.  “Let me see”, he says.  We wait as he pokes around his screen, we wait, and we wait some more as the data downloads.  “There it is, 40% chance of rainfall”.  I suck in air to begin to speak again, but he suspends my inhalation mid-air, “Wait, lets see”, his index finger strokes the glass screen once more, “drops to 20% chance of showers after 10 pm”. This search for precision kills me.

We promise a world that will be sensored and networked extensively. And we will experience our surroundings by poking at what our screen tells us.  Take my son who runs to the monitor to see if it is raining rather than viewing the clouds outside: two decades later, his children might tap into a sensor that tells them whether they have awoken from sleep in the morning. A reality from within.  Is this good? We simply do not know.  More than two decades ago, one of my friends, SG, used to joke that when we called his house, his refrigerator would pick up the phone and state that the answering machine wasn’t available to take the call.  Those were the days that appliances starting becoming multifunctional.  Today if you call me, my phone rings audibly.  Then my television, if it is on, flashes the message that I have received a phone call, and if the caller has checked away a certain portion of his privacy rights, then his name is displayed at the top of the screen.  This can impart a certain significance to the call.  In the event that I do not take the call,  I am shot off an email, I can call a number to retrieve the message, or I can hear this on my laptop, or have it transcribed into text on my computer.  And when all of this happens at the same time, a jolt of activity triggered by an innocent ring, and the orchestrated participation of my phone, my television, my computer and, as I secretly suspect (based upon my friend’s earlier assumptions) the complicity of my refrigerator, the intensity of the experience urges me to attend to the call at once.  Does this really help me?

My friend with the i-phone checks everything out on the mobile web.  When I see him I think of him as strapped to the camera at the start of Star Wars("long long time ago on a galaxy far far away....") asteroids of information coming at, through and past him, this information that we always call “digital”, but one with which our interaction is always analog.  He keeps our conversation accurate, but screws up the rhythm.

Years later, the stuff that we marvel at today, we will affectionately dismiss as clunky. The batteries don’t last beyond a few hours, the phones choke up your pockets, the sound quality is terrible, the screen is rigid, I have to poke at various things to do a few things.  Years ago, there was a company that was interested in retinally scanning images into your eyeballs. Perhaps this might come back.  You will see without having to look. Perhaps instead of batteries, these appliances will power off of your body.  You could eat all you want, without regard to calories—a surgical implant and a modification to your liver will allow your body to absorb only the energy that it needs, routing the excess energy that is today stored as excess fat, to charge your smart phones. You could be a trim glutton, wired in more ways than one. You would have a trim machine enforcing a trim owner. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake at the Union Station, Washington DC--lunch at Aditi Indian Kitchen

I have reviewed Aditi Indian Kitchen at Union Station before, and praised its no nonsense honest fare.  Today, I arrived into Union Station on the metro with a few spare minutes for a quick lunch before catching the 2 pm Acela Express. Loathing the idea of a grab and go sandwich, I decided to give Aditi a shot. So at 1:33; sped down the circular wooden staircase at the center of the station that arcs down to the basement. At 1:34; after waiting behind one customer, placed my order of chicken biryani, goat curry and an alu(potato) bonda to the efficient guy manning the counter.  At 1:36 paid for my food, and begun my lunch—the chicken curry was reliable, the goat meat tender and beyond what I had expected (some places can skimp on the quality of the meat leaving you with bony, chewy pieces), the curry a touch too spicy.  But mixed together, the biryani and goat made for a great, quick lunch.  The bonda was a couple of hours past its prime.  At 1:43 I was done, headed to gate F and in a few minutes seated and wi-fi’ed on the train.  At around 1:55 or so, the earthquake hits, I think it is one of those cases where the bogeys jump around a bit when a new engine is attached to the train.  Except that it went on for a few tens of seconds. At 1:58 a fellow passenger lets us know that someone just texted him about an earthquake.  A bit later I learn that it is a 5.9 earthquake.  Probably not large enough to seriously shake up a place like DC.  A nice lunch.  And a brief rumble.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A visit to Naulakha, Kipling’s house in Vermont

In the heart of Southern Vermont, amidst scenery as quintessentially American as can be, there is a house named Naulakha on a hill that is built of wood and sits on a mortared stone base.  Named after the pavilion in Lahore that was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan at a cost of nine lakh (Nau-lakha) rupees in 1633, this was the house that Rudyard Kipling built in the early 1890s in Brattleboro, and where he spent 4 of the most productive years of his literary life writing several books, including the famous, Jungle Book.  Beautifully restored and maintained by the British Landmark Society, Naulakha retains 60% of Kipling’s original furnishings and is rented out for overnight stays. 
We reached Naulakha after a 3 hour drive from New York and a glorious lunch at the People’s Pint in Greenfield, MA, a New England restaurant in the best tradition of the hearty new American food that pays particular attention to local farms and fresh produce.   We also detoured to visit Richard Bissell Woodworking in Putney  (a few miles east of Brattleboro)--a custom cabinetry shop on a winding dirt road where a trio working out of a quiet countryside workshop amid rolling meadows and sunwashed barns produce elegant clean lined furniture of cherry, maple, ash and walnut.  

Kipling chose the location for Naulakha carefully, and designed the house with a series of oversized windows that view down to the valley and hills beyond.  The house has a serene dignity and a calming presence, similar to the Ramakrishna Mission retreat in Kingston, NY, a country mansion where Swami Vivekananda stayed in the 1890s.  Like the oil stains in a long abandoned garage, Naulakha has a faint feeling of India, its interior reminiscent of colonial circuit houses in remote Indian outposts, its rugs Central Asian, some of its furniture incorporating Indian panels with inlayed patterns.  I find a bookcase of obvious Indian origin—it has the characteristic skillful engraving, and the poor engineering typical of Indian furniture—a tradition that remains alive to this date. 

Wood fills the interior: floors of dense pine, varnished six panel doors, wainscoting in the passageways, and exquisitely detailed moldings that attest to the craftsmanship of both the original French Canadian artisans who built the house, as well as the contemporary restorers who have maintained it, though Kipling might disagree: for this is what he had to say about American workmanship in the 1890s in a letter to a Mr. Henley,

The moral dry rot of it all is having no law that need be obeyed: no line to toe: no trace to kick over and no compulsion to do anything.  By consequence, a certain defect runs through everything-workmanship, roads, bridges, contracts, barter and sale and so forth-all inaccurate, all slovenly, all out of plumb and untrue…….

In the morning we go for a run down a country road that makes a steep descent.  It is the same road Kipling would have taken on his way downtown, and perhaps he might have been accompanied by Arthur Conan Doyle who had visited and stayed with him at Naulakha, bringing with him his golf clubs and introducing him and the bemused townspeople to the game at the same time.  The meadows are filled with knee high grass and sparkles of Queen Anne’s Lace.  Beyond, the house gardens have a studied dishabille; showing off bunches of purple phlox.  Occasionally a pick up truck passes by, carefully circumventing me. At the end of the circuit, we run up to Scott’s Farm, a neighbor of Naulakha and a working farm since 1862.  There are boxes of fruits out there—apricots, apples, plums and blueberries and we pick some up.  Men in Vermont retain a “frontiersman” look to them: unkempt in hair and with full beards, they are trim, polite and friendly, without the redundancy in speech that you might find in New York.  The farmer at Scotts is one of them, the life here is one of unhurriedness – he brings us samples to eat, and throws in a few apples instead of change when I pay for the fruits. 
Late at night I looked out of the 3rd floor attic, a warm room with pine paneling and a large billiards table, a gaming room in today’s parlance.  Small turret like twin windows gazed into the distance.  It was pitch dark outside, with a few scattered lights on the faraway hills, and a gentle breeze blew in through the mesh screens.  The light from the house bled out to the grass below throwing barely discernable shadows of dark grey, graduating into a pitch black into the middle-ground, and then further beyond, the black lightening to a dense brown from the faint and diffused light from Brattleboro.  It is a study in darkness, and aside from the slight glow in the distance, it is the same view that Kipling would have taken in.  On this night, the eye plays games in this mammoth darkness that is punctuated by the sounds of insects, while the heat and humidity collude for an imminent thunderstorm.  The eye picks out swathes of grey in the distance, that could be fog over the trees, or a distant hill, but which vanish and return by whim.

One evening we go to downtown Brattleboro to pick up dinner at Thai Bamboo.  There were specials full of mango—in the duck, in the chicken, in curries that were splattered with this fruit—this was an evening for mango madness.  It is the worst Thai food that I have had in years, supporting the maxim that you do not venture into ethnic restaurants in small-town America (exceptions are the cosmopolitan university towns where you can get food that rivals the metropolises—Ithaca and Amherst are a couple of examples).
I had not read much of Kipling earlier.  He, like Churchill, had been contemptuously ignored as imperialists in the sensitive climate of post independence India.  I discover him through his books that are scattered about the house, his travel writings, and his letters. He writes with a gift for descriptive clarity that reminds me of Naipaul.   Kipling was a young man in his twenties when he lived here, already a famous writer who had earned, by his own account, about 25,000 pounds during one of those years—a significant sum for the times (his house cost 11,000 pounds).  He was to leave in 4 years, after a public falling out with his brother-in-law and unwanted attention from the press.  He was never to return to Brattleboro, and, aside from a visit to New York in 1899 during which time his daughter passed away, was never to return to American shores.

The calamitous Thai food was more than made amends for the next day, when after driving up to Burlington, we ate Pho bowls at the Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Hong on Winooski Avenue, sitting outside on plastic chairs and tables in the evening breeze among a gaggle of university students.  Our waiter was a young man in his twenties with a Boston accent that almost sounded British, who arrived in Burlington to study graphic design, but stayed on, in his words, as a ski bum—the stream of youths who live for skiing in the winters, and work the summers to save up for the experience.  But the Pho bowls with their broth and noodles, and rare beef tendon or minced beef were made to perfection for that evening-- warm, and nourishing, meant to be washed down with a beer.

Earlier that evening we had spent a bit of time on the fishing pier on Lake Champlain, trying to catch fish on a windy day as choppy waves whipped up the water surface.  Another angler was wrapping up his gear.  He had caught nothing that evening he said, and predicted (correctly) that we wouldn’t either, for the waves sent the fish away from the surface.  But yesterday, he mentioned, he had caught forty fish; so fecund was this site on a good day.  I wanted to suggest that he was perhaps forgetting to count the 5-foot bass that he had also hooked that evening, but I held my tongue.