Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hyperreality syndrome

A few weeks ago I went looking for a thread of modern philosophy and landed, fittingly, on postmodernism (Po-Mo).  The ideas are fascinating, skeptical and questioning: it’s a provocative perspective. I particularly like the idea of “hyperreality”: the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from fantasy.

The idea is best illustrated by the Disney parks, filled with themed exhibits designed to echo other times and places. “"The beauty of Holland and the crisp Dutch costumes of its people are admired by guests cruising the seven seaways of 'It's a Small World' ” (Ref)  People see SmallWorldDutchthe wooden shoes and windmills set in a sea of Delft-blue tulips that they expect of the Netherlands,  recognizably and uniquely Dutch.

But postmodernists hold that there’s actually a circular reinforcement occurring.  When people see what they expect, then they further believe their preconceptions: at its limit, the simulation becomes reality.

Umberto Eco, in his very readable essay”Travels in Hyperreality” argues that this kind of model serves as “An Absolute Fake”.  Whereas fantasy or virtual reality is an escape where the participant acknowledges that he’s left the real world, the hyperreal becomes natural truth for people, vivid belief in something that, in fact, never existed.

It’s a seductive part of our culture. But is it a good thing?

Belk (1996) suggests that the uncritical acceptance of compelling simulations leads to three main problems.

  • They filter and tailor people’s perceptions, reinforcing comfortable stereotypes and superficial prejudices.
  • They minimize real cultural differences, fostering unrealistic expectations and hindering communication.
  • They make the complex world seem more uniform and rational, giving the illusion of predictability and efficiency.

I’d argue that they are also efficient vehicles for political and commercial messaging and persuasion.

But it can all be good fun too.  They provide a plastic framework to hold up against reality to provide context and contrast while traveling.  They are a useful point of reference when describing unfamiliar places to people who’ve never visited there.  It’s a simple shared illusion to adopt during Carnivale.

The trick, or course, is to Maastricht Sunsetknow the difference and not to lose touch with reality when tempted by the simulacrum.  And the best way to do that, of course, is by substituting real experiences: travel and, well, expatriate living.

Actually, for me, the true “hyper” in my reality is the flow of new events and ideas that have to be assimilated every day I live in a new culture.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Linking out

Web graphs  All of the recent travel and business activity put me severely behind on my networking with the expat community, and  enjoyed taking a day this week to catch up with the blogs and emails.

I follow about 20 expat blogs in the Netherlands, and I appreciate reading the variety of experience and insights, photos and personal stories, frustrations and successes that you all share.  There are always small gems of ideas that help me keep perspective or see something new, or that keep me from feeling alone in dealing with the absurdities of Dutch banks, government offices, trains, and shops (esp. Stu’s link to the Albert Heijn comedy riff).  Thank you all for your writing, I appreciate getting your links to local events, the help with language and customs, and the good humored encouragement.

I think that US expats have found the web site for the US Embassy; less well known is the US Mission to the EU, located in Brussels. While the Embassy focuses on citizen issues, the Mission has more cultural outreach. They are sponsoring a number of talks for Women’s History Month, for example, all webcast. and indexed through their Facebook page.

The Library of Congress maintains a Portals to the World web site with links to a vast set of government offices and organizations serving the Netherlands. Many of these are local Dutch groups, not affiliated with the US, so it’s a good general resource as well.

Reciprocally, the Royal Netherlands Embassy provides information on  US-linked events here.  On May 4 and 5, for example, there will be a major event in Wageningen to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second Word War for the Netherlands.

Finally, I’ve discovered an enhanced exchange rate site that’s worth a look.  I have to keep detailed expense records for taxes and reimbursement; XE is my usual source for converting euros to pounds to dollars.  Sometimes, though, I need to convert expenses across a period of time using a historical average exchange rate.  The OANDA currency calculator does this nicely and is a big help.

Image from “Graph Theory and the Web Map”, by Kimon Spiliopoulos

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thursday’s bits and bobs from friends

A friend reminded me that the learning curve of my Nokia X6 echoes my affection for WH Auden’s play “The Ascent of F6: A Tragedy in Two Acts”.  The mountain is haunted by the ghosts of each climber’s personal failings, and ultimately kills them all.  Hopefully my smartphone is inert and benign, simply a tool to bend to my will (or die trying?).


YaleAnd then there was a link to the horribly over-the-top musical video “Why I chose Yale”.  An introduction to undergraduate life at Yale College, actually prepared by the admissions office, it is weird and wrong on so many levels.


Another friend suggested that the future is in cloud-based address books, which now connect to both computers and mobile devices. I like the idea of having a single contact manager for e-mail and phones, and new services import and consolidate multiple address books automagically.  Soocial is a promising example, I also tried BigContacts and Flexadex.  My problem is that even after de-duplicating, I have nearly 2000 contacts, which means that there’s a big effort ahead to weed out expired  cards.


I was accused of being a bit of a “dutch-o-phile” the other day, an odd use of the language.  We don’t say ‘brit-o-phile”, we use Anglophile.  So, does the equivalent become “Nedophile” (a bit of a creepy resonance in that one…).



We were debating why all of the signs for "be careful not to fall”, like this one at a Cambridge pool, feature people dropping backward? It seems like the standard is to reserve forward falling to warn of tripping.

a7f9_stickman_action_figure_ondesk_embedOr create your own…


And, after searching a half-dozen apartments in Cambridge, I’ve concluded that bathrooms are pretty sad everywhere…

…but that, on a sunny day and a sunset evening, the Channel crossing by ferry lives up to it’s hype.







Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Climbing the learning curve

DSC00577I have two ways of learning; guided immersion to come up to speed on a new topic and self-study to add increments to what’s already known.  I’ve found that once I have a basic framework from a class, I can keep up with further advances on my own.  If the gap is too large, dipping into books or web tutorials doesn’t help: I get stuck in unfamiliar vocabulary, mechanisms, and notation.

Case in point: my new phone.

I use a basic flip-phone for calling and texting, battered by three years in my hip pocket.  Looking for a replacement, I found that style is extinct; everything is slide or touch, surf and apps.  The iPhone has totally captured the landscape.

I played with a variety of phones before settling on Nokia’s X6 16MB with Symbian, stepping up to a smartphone without fully embracing Apple’s ecology (or costs).

I like the bright screen, quick responses, and a serviceable browser.  At the same time, there is a lot in the phone, and learning it all is taking longer than I expected.  Little of what I knew about phones carries over to what I need to know to run the X6.

I’m still clumsy at touch screen dialing and typing, and am slow to compose texts. I’m hunting endlessly through menus, and need to organize jump buttons.  Moving my contacts is still a puzzle: maybe via Bluetooth, mediated through my computer?  The phone has a will of its own, connecting to data services and access points even when I’m back in the Netherlands.  I had to call tech support to stop that ₤3 /Mb behavior.

DSC00578 But even beyond that, I’m finding that I need to adapt my habits as well as my scripts.

My street-tech ensemble consists of a phone, a camera, an mp3 player, a TomTom, and my reading glasses.  The new phone does almost all of that, and I’m wondering how much to consolidate and transfer. I should embrace the simplicity, but lifestyle change is hard.

And how much of the Internet I want with me all day? I set up e-mail, but get pinged with trivia: they shouldn’t have the same urgency as text messages. Setting up Skype seemed like a good idea, but people get confused if I don’t want to IM: they think I’m at my computer.  And do I really need one-touch /always-on access to Facebook and  Twitter?

Maybe I need an orientation class.  Maybe I’m just too far behind.  Or, maybe, I’m overmanaging the process.  Certainly the tiny user’s manual suggests that I shouldn’t worry my head about setting up packet data transfers and just download my ringtones from the Ovi store.

It probably would have helped to have embraced smartphones at an earlier generation, before the step-up to the X6 required climbing aids.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Back in town

  …and back on line.  Still hard to believe that a tech-y town like Cambridge isn’t better connected, but it remains a place with few public access points.

In any case, it was a busy few days: first London, then Cambridge, for a mix of pitching, meeting, and apartment hunting.  Generally successful, both funding and project resources seem to be coming together.  The weather was beautiful, blue skies and radiant sunshine, but  temperatures hovered close to zero C throughout.

A few pictures and a Cambridge themed article as I get back into the swing of writing.