Category Archives: USA

c o a s t s t a r l i g h t

[ 17:16 thursday 2nd november 2017 – amtrak coast starlight, oakland to los angeles ]

like a gigantic migratory creature this train left seattle at 9am yesterday morning on its southward journey. 24 hours later at 9am this morning, heralded by a mournful tritone whistle and clanging bell, the huge double-decker tube of shining corrugated steel snaked alongside the platform at oakland jack london square beneath a crisp blue autumn sky and i climbed aboard. the journey will reach its conclusion when the train pulls into the art deco splendour of los angeles union station at 9pm tonight. i’ll have been on board for 12 hours of its 36 hour journey.

for all america’s supposed abandonment of the train for its devotion to the automobile, this service is a true inheritor of the nineteenth century trans-continental trains that have all but disappeared from europe. as well as seating carriages equipped with deep reclining armchairs there are sleeper cabins with en-suite bathrooms, an observation car with full-height windows and swivel-chairs, a dining car with linen tablecloths and napkins, even a cinema car.

the train crew is like a troupe of actors assigned slightly over-written parts. the earth-mother cafe attendant who had to deal with an armed war veteran’s post-traumatic meltdown as the sun rose. the irascible dining car host whose announcements mimic a television game show and whose timings for meal sittings seem to be entirely arbitrary. the senior conductor whose messages elaborate an evolving narrative of her grudge towards one of the junior conductors regarding some money she loaned them which has yet to be returned.

meanwhile the mix of passengers is almost unfathomable. on european trains one finds a fairly representative cross-section of society, rich and poor alike. on this train it feels like 99% of american society is absent and instead the train is populated with just a handful of narrow niches. people on low incomes with too much luggage to carry by greyhound bus (the only travel option that’s cheaper); wealthier people who don’t like flying and can’t be bothered to drive; hardcore railway buffs; folks like me who are doing it for the sheer adventure.

for most of the journey i’ve been camped in the observation car with a couple of dozen people scattered around the banquettes and swivel chairs. leaving oakland we passed through the decayed industrial residue and salt pans of the east bay to the bland techno-architecture of san jose. this gave way to the hyper-fertile agriculture of the salinas valley followed by baroque twists and curls through hill country where the grass gradually paled from lush green to dry yellow. in san luis obispo the train stopped for 40 minutes so i took the opportunity to run into the centre of town, buy myself a mango smoothie and run back; pressed on by the thrilling fear the train might continue on its way without me.

after san luis obispo the track joined the pacific coast for a spectacular sequence of dunes, wild beaches and rocky promontories. i couldn’t help being reminded of the stretch of brunel’s great western railway where the track runs beside the atlantic coast along the red sandstone cliffs of teignmouth and dawlish. but of course this is california and everything is a thousand times larger.

as the track reached the coast the atmosphere in the car shifted perceptibly. conversation became muted and everyone turned to gaze at the ocean, as if drawn by the same primal urge towards the sea. a lady with steel-grey hair hanging to her waist and a sequence of trembling chins struck up a running commentary on the passing coastline, uniting the rest of us as her audience.

for half an hour either side of vandenburgh air force base the coastal scenery was punctuated by rocket launch towers and radar installations. california has the power to make even such surreal intrusions seem as much part of its landscape as a rock outcrop or river. shortly after point conception i watched a pair of whales breach the surface close inshore and send twin fountains of steam rising from their blowholes.

almost a decade ago i performed one of the canonical american journeys driving down highway 1 along the coast from san francisco to san diego (photographs here). it was a magnifient experience, particularly the stretch down the big sur coast. ever since then i’ve been yearning to travel the same route by train.

in los angeles i’m looking forward to visiting my friends paul and sarah who moved there a couple of years ago. i’ve always felt slightly afraid of the city. the prospect of traffic-infused suburbs stretching to an infinite horizon and a perma-tanned culture of insincerity have been enough to keep me away. but it’s high time i brushed off these prejudices and explored for myself.

these have been happy months. the trampery is doing great things, i feel in harmony with myself and a new romantic focus has appeared in my life. the only note of sadness has been learning of the death of robin murray, a remarkable economist and human. i met him at an event on democratic innovation hosted at the very first trampery building in 2010 and we became friends. his childlike curiosity, brilliance and compassion reminded me of michael young. now he is gone i realise how much i will miss his advice.

my journey continues.

: c :

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p h o t o s : washington, trapani, stromboli, palermo

[ 23:22 tuesday 16 february – haggerston road ]

here’s a crop of fifty-eight photos from last september:

washington dc (ix 2009) : 14 pictures : in washington dc to represent one click orgs at harvard’s summit on next-generation governance, hiking the entire length of rock creek park, exploring the back streets.
trapani (ix 2009) : 20 pictures : out and about in trapani in turbulent weather. abandoned marble factory, ruined tonnara, swimming off the rocks.
stromboli (ix 2009) : 11 pictures : a stormy week with my friends on stromboli.
palermo (ix 2009) : 13 pictures : the festa della madonna delle mercede in palermo.

one picture from each set posted below.

: c :

f o t o s : i – ii 2009

[ 01:38 tuesday 28 april – haggerston road, london ]

another five sets containing one hundred and twenty four pictures. this brings me up to date with everything i’ve  got scanned. needless to say another shelf of exposed films has accumulated meanwhile, begging to be sent to the lab.

: karnak :

25 photos wandering round the overwhelming temple complex during the afternoon into the twilight when all the tourists were gone.

: valley of the kings :

15 photos biking out from the west bank with ahmed to the collossi of memnon and up and through the edges of the western desert to the valley of the kings. climbing up to the ridge above the valley to be rewarded with amazing views over luxor and the desert.

: california :

36 photos in san diego to collect an award for trampoline, with shemoel and his friends in san francisco, walking with vajra above muir beach and musical experiments at point reyes .

: bil conference :

33 photos of the bil conference in long beach with quinn, asheesh and friends.

: noisebridge :

15 photos at the noisebridge hacker space in san francisco with quinn and shemoel.

: c :

a m e r i k a n a

[ 17:09 thursday 26 march – virgin flight 11, london to boston ]

arcing across the ice floes towards nova scotia the cabin crew distributes a meal they badge as “breakfast” or “a light snack” depending on the time of day. today the latter. the meals are identical either way. inflight time has a structure and grammar of its own, blithe to the daily cycle of hamlets and cities far beneath.

each time i cross the north atlantic i’m fascinated by the changing character of the sea ice. at the moment i’m seeing it frequently enough to start discerning its language of structure and motion telling the seasons as surely as the cycle of buds, leaves and blossoms with which i’m more familiar. the monolithic expanses of white i saw a month ago are now fractured and stretches of blue are beginning to gaping amidst them. from my vantage point eleven kilometres in the air patterns become evident. as patches of ice become detached from a larger body and float out into open water they form T-shaped units with graceful curlicues at the branches. these units sometimes form convoys, each element smaller than its predecessor. flying, whilst destructive, permits us to appreciate aspects of the earth’s beauty that are otherwise imperceivable.

this is my fourth trip to the united states since the start of the year. the first was in mid-january, immediately following my return from egypt, when i travelled to san diego to give a talk and receive an award for trampoline. the weather was serene and sunny but i was obliged to spend all but a few minutes inside a conference hall. from san diego i flew to san francisco to attend meetings. i was staying with shemoel so each evening when my trampoline work was complete we recorded songs and experimented with different ways of combining acoustic and electronic sound elements. one day we drove up to point reyes to meet sara winge at the home of bart hopkin, a friend of hers who invents instruments. bart showed us some of his creations, which ranged from a plucked string instrument with strings were connected in triangles to wind instruments where corrugated tubing was used to generate standing waves. shemoel demonstrated one of his sound sculptures and we showed how live processing frameworks such as max/msp can be combined with micro-controllers such as arduino to create extended instruments. after that we all played together for a couple of hours, a delicious mass of filigree sounds.

the second trip was in february when i travelled over to long beach with emma and james to give a talk about one click organisations at the bil conference. bil was conceived as a parallel-universe ted with a focus on new thinking but with open access and free entry in contrast to ted’s exclusivity and expense. i caught half a day of the very first bil in monterey last year on quinn’s advice and this year i was eager to attend the whole thing. the organisers gave me the second slot in the main hall, following a talk about privacy by brad templeton. i’d decided not to use slides but changed my mind at the last minute and threw together a deck during brad’s talk. it was a lovely event. i particularly enjoyed meeting the folks behind the noisebridge hacker space in san francisco, who drove down en masse. also a young photographer called michael strout with a great talent for lighting, who did a shoot with me in the courtyard. mitch altman was there with his brain machine glasses. they flash leds over one’s eyes and buzz into one’s ears at carefully calculated frequencies which change over a twenty minute cycle. the effect is most peculiar, one is gradually drawn into a meditative state and begins to hallucinate colours and patterns. mitch also invented the magnificent “tv b gone” remote control. entering a japanese restaurant with him on the final evening in long beach the two giant tv screens mysteriously deactivated themselves leaving us and our friends to converse in peace. on the way back to london i stopped in san francisco for one night to see shemoel. we recorded a couple of songs and decided to call our project “the dupio”.

my third trip was at the beginning of march when i came over to boston and cambridge for some trampoline meetings. it was bright and clear for the first couple of days, though there was still snow on the ground. i drove out to point halibut and traversed the jumbled granite boulders around the coast. it was hard going but this is a terrain i know and love from cornwall and the isles of scilly. the trick is to keep one’s momentum up, trust one’s instincts and resist the temptation to think about it. in a way this has become a metaphor for how i live. there is a pleasure in sensing the angles of each rock in turn and allowing oneself to ricochet from one to the next. on the third day there was a snowstorm which i enjoyed mightily. i found my way to a noisecore show at tufts university where one of the bands dressed as giant rats. i heard a performance by a minimalist cellist called jeremy harman and we got together to play the next day. late one evening i visited mako hill in somerville to better understand his position on zero-cost duplication and swap notes on web music services. he was very impressive.

this fourth trip is to attend foo east at microsoft’s research centre in cambridge. having been invited to last summer’s event in sebastopol i wasn’t expecting another chance so i was flattered to receive the invitation. i may talk about any of organisational analytics, emergent structure, one click organisations and live processing. i’m also bringing some musical kit with me so it’ll be possible to do a session with reaktor if i can interest anyone in that.

: c :

e l e c t i o n

[ 22:05 thursday 23 october – dulles airport, virginia ]

dulles airport again, on my way back to london. being in washington two weeks before the presidential election has been deeply bizarre. news media are saturated. nick-nack shops are stacked with election trinkets, typically including lifesize cardboard cutouts of the two pair of presidential and vice presidential candidates. verges are peppered with placards supporting one party or the other, not just in the city but in the remotest corners of countryside. driving around you can tell a lot about the demographics of an area from the balance between mccain and obama placards, the same way variations in shrubs tell you about the underlying soil.

at the weekend, out on the maryland coast, the mccain faction was decidedly in the ascendent. at breakfast on sunday morning i naughtily eavesdropped conversations on neighbouring tables. one woman was seriously arguing that obama was a sleeper agent for a hostile power: “you know there are literally thousands of these sleepers waiting for the call”.

22:56 / on the plane, ready to take off. only forty-five people in economy so i’ve got a row of four seats all to myself!

: c :