The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What's the most exciting thing you see on the way to work?

Guest answer from Jess Haskins.

Life First, what work for me is — I'm a game designer. I work at a small game development studio in New York City called Muse Games. Earlier this year we moved our office from a loft in Chinatown to an office block in the Financial District, right on Bowling Green. In the weeks that followed our move, we experienced an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood warning, and the dawn of a protest movement: Occupy Wall Street.

I pass Zuccotti Park on my way to work every day, and I first noticed that something was happening when on my morning walk I was joined by a merging phalanx of drum-tapping, horn-tooting, sign-bearing, mask-wearing protesters. As I read their signs and listened to the sound of their chants and matched the cadence of their steps, I inhaled deeply and breathed it in. I was marching! I was protesting! At the next corner, they turned and I kept going straight, resuming my New-York-paced speedwalk, once more weaving and dodging into the crowd instead of trundling along with it in synchronized solidarity.

From then on, I watched the burgeoning movement with interest, observing the daily evolution of the protest campsite: the information desk and its staffers, the expanding library, the cardboard Faux News cameras, the print edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. (OWS was making its own media, as the mainstream media seemed conspicuously absent from this engaging and newsworthy scene.) Although I didn't feel the urge to participate personally, I appreciated the efforts of the protesters and admired their presence and perseverance. I sympathized with their message and hoped the movement would be a success.

Zuccotti Park ready for public enjoyment

But I don't want to talk about the park. The park is empty now, stormed and swept and cleared away so that the space could be freed up for the use of "the public" — now it's a sea of barricades and trees decorated for the holidays, ringed with police and a handful of hangers-on and of no use to anyone at all. I don't want to talk about the park. I want to talk about the bull.

A few blocks from Zuccotti Park is Bowling Green, site of Charging Bull, the famous statue representing the virile capitalist vigor of Wall Street. Our office building sits directly opposite the statue, affording us an excellent view of the daily throngs of tourists queuing up and massing around it, snapping photos, clambering over its back, swinging from its horns, and polishing its scrotum for luck. But this ritual molestation is a thing of the past — since the outbreak of the Occupation, the barriers went up around the bull, too, and now it enjoys the protection of a 24-hour security detail. The poor tourists can only stand around the outside of the pen for their photos, sometimes leaning over for an awkward hug with one of the horns before running over to pester the cops for more photos and directions to Century 21. (It's up Broadway. Just keep walking.)

A frustrated tourist reaches for the bull's horns

It's for the bull's own good. Since OWS kicked off with Adbusters' poster of a revolutionary ballerina poised atop Charging Bull's head, with a vanguard of occupiers rushing forward from the misty background, the statue, with all its loathsome, potent symbolism, must have been deemed a prime target for the movement's rage. As far as I know, no shenanigans have been attempted by occupiers (the last prank I remember directed at the hapless bovine was the painting of its balls blue during the depths of the recession over a year ago), and all I can think of is how disappointed the tourists must be. Apparently the bull is a big deal in some parts of the world, and people come from far away just to see it — then to be forced to stand back and have to grope it clumsily while stretched across a crowd barrier! For one day only I saw the cops allowing the tourists to line up and enter the pen one at a time for hugs and photos, as if the bull were signing autographs. That didn't stick, though, and the next day it was back to leaning on barricades, longing to get just a little closer to the symbol and source of all that throbbing financial potency. Just a few blocks away people were camping out 'round the clock in the deepening cold to protest a corrupt and exploitative financial establishment, while here just down the road were people who had traveled thousands of miles just to line up and fondle the testicles of the establishment's graven idol.

I thought up a game for Occupy Wall Street. It's a mobile game. There are crowds of people filling a public square, and you are Charging Bull. With a flick of your finger you send Charging Bull careering through the crowds. Every time you hit someone they fall down and some money flies out, and they yell out a slogan, like "People Not Profits!" or "Make Love Not Toxic Assets Repackaged As Junk Derivatives And Foisted On The American Taxpayer!" You eat the dropped money, which represents your score. The crowd has a a 1% chance of spawning a suited investment banker who will jostle his way through the crowd; if you hit a one-percenter, he will yell a slogan like "Get a job!" or "Corporations are people, too!," then the game immediately ends and you lose. There will also be white-shirted police officers who move through the crowd, randomly pepper-spraying people who will fall down and stop moving (but you can still hit them and get their money). If you hit the white shirt, he will pepper-spray down your throat and you will regurgitate and lose all the money you have collected so far. The game ends when you have collected all the money from the people and retire to a villa in the Caribbean. I call it Bowling for Green.

The Opinion Engine 2.0: 16/31:
Republic of the Moon at FACT.

Press view invite from FACT in Liverpool.

Art When was the last time you looked at the Moon? Properly looked at it? Walking around Republic of the Moon it occurred to me how much I took for granted one of the most extraordinary examples of natural beauty, one which is accessible to our wonder every evening no matter our geographic location (depending on weather conditions) and which as the work demonstrates is almost unique in its ability to inspire both those who comprehend it with their imagination and those who strive to measure its properties, artists and scientists.

It’s apt that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is still playing at FACT's cinema (just about) with its flashback sequences showing the production of Meliere's Le Voyage dans la lune. Like him, these artists seek to investigate humanities motivation in choosing to go to the moon through fantastical elements and fictions. The gallery guide mentions the recent Mars 500 ‘wood panelled spacecraft’ in Moscow, six men simulating a space mission on the ground. Through another prism that would be performance art.

In Enter At Own Risk, 2011 We Colonised the Moon, Hagen Betzwiser and Sue Corke imagines the work of lunar scientists on the moon’s surface, specifically the smell generated by moon dust as they re-entered the lunar module. They’ve attempted a recreation, which to my nasal cavity is somewhat like the Yankee Candle shop but through scratch and sniff postcards has been confirmed by one of the actual astronauts. One of the repeated elements of the exhibition is the revealing of little known facts about our natural satellite.

Beyond an airlock which reminds us of the preparatory processes from FACT’s previous success, ZEE, a room is set out like a mock up of the lunar surface and visitors at the weekend will be able to see the artist’s own astronaut recreating a moon mission, gardening the artificial rocks. We received a preview and its an eerie experience not least because as a group we were awed into silence presumably so as not to distract the performer from their task. We met the person behind the mask later but I won’t spoil their anonymity.

The last Apollo landing was by the Soviet Union, when in 1976, the Lunik 24, an unmanned probe stopped off for twenty-four hours and collected moon rocks. Leonid Tishkov cherishes that fact and in Private Moon he personalises it by presenting a series of photos illustrating the story of man who meets the moon and decides to spend the rest of his life with it. These are beautiful evocations of the city, illuminated by the moon itself carried about like the heart in the promo for Rodger Sanchez’s Another Chance, a reference he probably wasn’t intending.

Similarly its unlikely Sharon Houkema had the rippling moon of the surface of the water in the opening titles of Arena, the BBC’s arts strand when producing M3, but as it ebbs and flows on the wall above us, it replicates the same broken quality in a clever adaptation of an overhead projector. As the accompanying text describes: “The moon image – often surrounded with mysticism, romanticism and fantasy – is rendered (un)intelligible, yet the magic doesn’t disappear, it merely switches position.”

The point were science and art properly coexist is in Andy Gracie’s Drosophila Titanus a small display which gathers evidence of the artist’s attempt to breed a fruit fly capable of withstanding the extreme conditions on Titan (Saturn’s moon) (which you already knew) (sorry to insult your intelligence). When Gracie says the experiment could take many thousands of generation it gains an epic quality even on discovering the life cycle of the fly is nine days. One of the outcomes will be in seeing how mutant strains and deformities can speed up the process.

Liliane Lijn imagined in 1992 a moment when she’d behold it and see the word printed across it in block capitals, the celestial body becoming a metaphor for the female body which it already effects indirectly. He decades long project has resulted in a video piece representing her vision which shifts every twenty-six hours in time with its actuality, the natural lunar cycle suggestion a gender transformation as SHE becomes HE and back again. In the darkness of the media lounge, moonememe is accompanied by the voice of Lijn and a friend vocalising these shifts.

If you take my advice you will visit the media lounge then Gallery Two first because for once it’s Gallery One (opposite the box office) which provides the grand finale and perhaps one of the most original, astonishing, exciting art pieces these thirty-seven year old eyes has seen, a work which taps directly into my whimsy gene with its poignancy. Glimpsing at it through a window on an exterior wall as I arrived for the press view suggested this would be a simple reproduction of the control room for a moon mission.  I was wrong.

At which point the title does much of the work. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility takes it inspiration from Francis Goodwin’s Jacobian utopian fantasy novel The Man in the Moone, which recounts the diary of one Domingo Gonsales who’s carried to the moon in a chariot by geese and the artist has bred eleven of the fowl at an analogue for the moon in Italy, the secret success being that instead of simply faking these elements, we’re seeing their behaviour live.

None of which really describes the excitement of being in the room, the attention to detail of some of the elements, and it’s not supposed to. You have to visit, even for ten minutes, even if you’re primarily in the building to go the movies (though chances are whatever you’re seeing will have a tenth of the imagination of this). It’s rare that I become quite so evangelic about an art piece but along with the accompanying film which charts the development of the experiment, Meyer-Brandis captures the magic of Melieres through even more dimensions than Hugo.  Breathtaking.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Are You Easily Distracted?

My october symphony

Guest answer from Karie (@kariebookish).

Life The fact that I had to be asked three times to contribute this piece says a lot. I am not sure if I can blame impending middle-age or the internet. What did you say .. oh, look! A funny dog video! All I know is that I have been meaning to make that important phone call for two months and I nearly forgot the postal deadline for sending Christmas presents abroad but I am able to tell you all about a trampoline being blown away in Scotland and a dog chasing deer outside London. Has my brain succumbed to memes?

Maybe our brains are not wired for this post-industrial age of information. Information used to have gate keepers: people who made sure that we did not get distracted from important local news by stories about US mall officers tracking down owners of lost envelopes. These days our gatekeepers seem to be the people who find the most obscure piece of news and spread it via Reddit or Metafilter until it ends up on Twitter and then Facebook where your aunt will read it and email it to you three months after you first plus-'d-oned it. Can our brains be trusted to filter the deluge of information and suss out which are the important things to remember?

So, the way information has disseminated has changed irrevocably. Arguably the ways we receive, store and process information have also changed. Twenty years ago the critic Donna Haraway wrote her famous “Cyborg Manifesto”. The manifesto uses the concept of “cyborg” as a feminist metaphor, but Haraway's essay is eerily prescient. We receive, store and process information as though we are machines although I'd say we are closer to being conduits than actual machines. Can we be so distracted that we forget we are human?

I used to think of myself as a woman of the modern age – someone who looked at buildings as machines and saw art as an escape from emotion. I confess there has been a change and that I am more a romantic in the old 19th century sense of the word. I find myself becoming increasingly interested in the ideas of authenticity and origin. Words that I should be rejecting as obsolete in this day and age. I think I am reacting to my own distracted state of being: I crave slowness and I need time to think in order to connect to myself again. I read books (not on a Kindle although I am clearly the demographic for it) and I knit (preferably from yarn so authentic that I know the name of the sheep) – both gestures reaching back through time though interestingly also both infinitely now gestures.

2011 was the year of protests, so the media tell us. I like to think that my brain has protesting against what I have been doing to it. Will 2012 be the year of Luddism? Will I remember to make that phone call and write letters? Ask me next year.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Torchwood's Web of Lies.

TV  Revisiting Torchwood’s Miracle Day, this summer’s great televisual disappointment in any form is rather like picking at a scab, but for completion sake I did buy a copy of the blu-ray if only to see if the commentaries would offer any indications as to what went wrong. Recorded during post-production for the last episode by Russell T Davies and Julie Gardener it is possible to hear some weary exhaustion and with all of the criticism and qualifications of their own work, we can now take the view that they had a massive loss of confidence when faced with working in a new idiom and followed too many dodgy notes from Starz as to how to make the programme.  Meanwhile, it sounds as though the BBC just left them to get on with it.

Amongst the other extras are a deleted scene which allows us to watch Alexa Havens park a car outside an airport over and over and over again (and for no good reason it turns out) and this “motion comic” Web of Lies originally released on iTunes in ten weekly chunks during the original broadcast. Already finding the forty-five minutes or so of the main series quite enough to slog through per week I decided to leave my enjoyment of this as late as possible and so here we are at the closing of the year. I could of course have waited until next year’s Doctor Who drought but decided that the last thing I wanted was for Torchwood’s Miracle Day to spread across any more of my calendar, especially since it looks like it’s never coming back anyway.

In the event, Web of Lies is about as I expected with just a few surprises. Split between two time frames, it sees Holly, a surprisingly connected young woman, investigating the shooting of her brother during Miracle Day and in parallel, a flashback sequence set during Torchwood’s first season in which Gwen travels the world searching for a kidnapped Jack, the two stories ultimately segwaying in a way that Immortal Sins failed to. At half an hour it doesn’t outstay its welcome and Jane Espenson’s script flows pretty well so long as you keep in mind that the reason everyone keeps repeating themselves every three minutes is because we’re skipping the week in between, and narrative leaps are because the interactive elements are missing.

The pre-release/publication/download excitement was because of the appearance of Eliza Dushku as the lead though there’s two obvious disappointments. As well as the aforementioned isolation from actual Torchwood, thereby nullifying hope of a kind of faux-Faith/Jack stand-off, Holly isn’t drawn to look like her either, the artist clearly a fan of Maggie Hopey from Love and Rockets (see above). Of course, in animation such things aren’t to be expected, but since the rest of the cast includes Jesse Eisenberg and Daniel Craig (at least in terms of drawing inspiration), it’s a shame the artist didn’t decide to give Eliza her tru calling (sorry). Perhaps she was cast after the design work was done.

There’s no Web of Lies Confidential so we don’t really know what the production process was like, but it’s fair to say not all of the animation works and in this case the “motion comic” label is designed to set the viewer up for something fairly rudimentary. It’s at about the level of the Shada remake with some moving parts, so although the rendering of the Cardiff characters is perfectly fine, the multiple facial expressions of Eve Myles captured, especially the one in which her eyeballs seem to envelop half of her face, their heads often wobble back and forth in a very curious manner like office toys.  The two or three frame style of walking will be familiar to fans of 8-bit computer games.

But like Shada and dozens of missing episode recons, it’s the performances and writing which generally carry things. Eve and Jack are at about the tone of Torchwood’s radio series and there’s a strange nostalgia to hearing them refer to absent friends even if the actuality of that old series, as we’ve noted in recent weeks, left a bit to be desired (a bit?). Dushku is a bit hesitant at first but soon the Faith/Tru/Echo paradigm kicks in and almost makes up for the lack of proper Torchwood action for her. The story resolution even seems to make sense of a section of the main series, although arguably it should have been up to the main series to do that. Presumably they decided it was already overburdened with stuff.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What is your favourite building?

St Luke's church

Guest answer by Ruth Moss (@smashpoetry).

When Stuart asked me to write a guest post on the subject of my favourite building I was stumped.

If he’d asked me about my favourite place, it would have been different. Ravenhead Greenway in St. Helens where I used to walk the dogs I used to have. Greenwich Park in London, where I’d go on early morning walks to shake off hangovers and comedowns, back in the early noughties. Abercromby Square in Liverpool, where I’d sit and read DH Lawrence novels, wearing a polo neck and drinking wine from a plastic cup. A farmer’s field in Newton-le-Willows where I once spent an afternoon with a pretty girl and a suitcase. The underneath of the stairs up to Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral where I once spent part of a night out with a handsome young man and … well, I’ll leave that there.

However, the question was about my favourite building, and not my favourite place.

I’m not especially well-travelled, and on the odd occasion I’ve been further than the UK I’ve been more interested in going on long walks and assessing the local landscape; when I’ve been indoors it’s been more for the content of the place (art galleries, museums, libraries) than the building itself.

I’m just not a building person; the only places I really enjoy spending long periods of time indoors are my house, and the houses of people with whom I enjoy spending time. It’s not that I’m unimpressed by great architecture; it’s just that I can’t fall in love with it in the way I can with the great outdoors.

However, I didn’t want to let Stuart down. At first, I thought that perhaps my own house is my favourite building; a simple two-bedroom mid-terrace in St Helens, but decorated throughout with vibrant matching colour pallets with bright bunting, various unusual car-boot finds and generally made to look cheerful and quirky without overstepping the line into tacky. I have, as one might say, made it my own; me and my son spend quite a bit of time there so it has to be a gorgeous place to live.

High ceilings, a faux-marble fireplace, steep stairs and a rickety old landing combine to make it architecturally interesting, if not high art. But as for it being my favourite building? I wasn’t sure. It felt like cheating.

It was only when I was on twitter, reading my stream, and saw a tweet from someone I follow, that I realised I do indeed have a favourite building. I’d forgotten about it, primarily because I don’t really think of it as a building as such; I’d categorise it more as a place, but still, it has walls, and foundations; bricks and mortar; it’s fairly old, too, and architecturally very interesting.

It doesn’t, however, have a roof.

It did once.

The tweet I saw was from @BombedOutChurch and was about something Urban Strawberry Lunch was putting on there.

My favourite building is St. Luke’s Church in Liverpool. It sits at the place where Bold Street turns into Hardman Street. Once a fully-functioning church, it’s now used by musicians, artists, CND campaigners, Yoga teachers, local characters and anyone in need of a bit of solace. Often, walking up Bold Street, music can be heard coming from inside the church drawing in interested passers-by.

Bombed in the Liverpool Blitz on 5th May 1941, St. Luke’s suffered heavy damage; its roof entirely demolished but its walls and steeple miraculously left standing. Trees and plants now grow inside the church; strawberries and buddleja adorn brickwork and seats made of haystacks nestle in the grass for weary tourists or locals.

If I was a religious person, I’d imagine this as the perfect place to commune with God; a man-made building but a carpet of grass and a roof of sky; a perfect meeting of humans and creation. I’m not particularly religious, but it does seem to me at least serendipitous that enough of the church survived to turn it into what it is today; a calm, serene meeting place where people can come together with many differing ideas and share them in an atmosphere of peace, serenity and covered by a ceiling of clouds.

For me, too, it’s my perfect building. Not only is it beautiful (of course churches are beautiful; they were meant to impress peasants, like I would have been back then) but the inside is the outdoors.

You can find further information on the bombing of Liverpool here, further information on St. Luke’s Church here, Urban Strawberry Lunch’s website is here and twitter feed is here.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Will the physical book become obsolete with the advances in technology? Could the same fate befall the physical act of love?

Question from Zoe Pattulo via Facebook.

Books However obsolete Google has now rendered most of my undergraduate degree in Information Studies, there were still plenty of lectures and seminars that in glancing forwards towards technological revolutions retained some of their resonance. Back in 1993 it seemed inconceivable that the internet would become so prevalent that it would effect our ability to retain knowledge causing us to rely on the devices at finger tips rather than the one which evolution has given us, yet here I am unable to remember the name of one my favourite actresses without recourse to the IMDb (it’s Barbara Stanwyck and now that I’ve typed it into something I might have a chance).

The other surprise, a few weeks into the Information and Society course was the death of the book, or at least a book made from wood pulp with physical pages. Even laptops at the time were hulking great big things and the idea that they’d become small enough to hold in the hand, something akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Star Trek’s PADD seemed, for obvious reasons, like science fiction. Apart from anything else, we were all still writing this down on a A4 refill pad with a biro. Laborious perhaps but why would anyone want to give up something that flexible, permanent and undeletable without recourse to whitner or a match?

We were even tasked with listing all of the reasons why books might survive and the cumulative list on the white board was about what you might expect. That paper books are tactile, easy to access, resilient, not as susceptible to technological failure, enjoyable to pick up in a book shop and smell excellent when brand new. That last one was probably mine. Especially glossy text books, particularly if they’re employing a heavy duty paper. Yum. Anyway we all looked at that list and decided that electronic books or whatever they’d be called might happen, but they’d be a niche item. People would still want books. Wouldn’t they?

Well, hum. From Alison Flood of The Guardian, Friday 12 August 2011, 14.36 BST: “Sales of adult fiction in hardback so far this year have fallen by over 10% according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan: by this point last year, sales of the format had reached £29.7m, while this year they stand at £26.6m. Cheaper paperback sales, in contrast, have only fallen 6%. Hardback sales have fallen in volume as well as value, BookScan said, from 2.8m copies sold by this point last year to 2.6m this, echoing a trend over the last two years: 8.5m copies of adult fiction hardbacks were sold in total in 2009, compared to just 7m in 2010.”

It’s the near death of physical books, people. Read the whole article and find quotes from various members of the trade commenting on how hardbacks are themselves becoming the niche, premium products with eBooks likely to continue to “cannibalise” their sales. But there are two details which you might have missed – I did first time around and which are relatively important for present purposes.  (1) “Cheaper paperback sales, in contrast, have only fallen 6%” and another which isn’t even mentioned but is very important – that (2) generally hardbacks and eBooks are published on the same day often months and months before the cheaper paperback.

That’s important, and here’s why. My Dad is big fan of historo-fantasy writer Diana Gabaldon and after hearing she had a new book out duly sent me to Amazon to see if it is available in paperback. His preference for paperbacks goes back to when he was working. They were easier to hold on the bus and even the doorsteps he reads took up less space in his bag and even now he finds hardbacks unwieldy to hold. Plus they’re cheaper. Amazon reveals the paperback isn’t published until 25th October 2012 but that the hardback is out this week. So after the usual sigh he handed me his credit card details and we ordered the larger edition.

The eBook edition is out the same day and I wondered what might have happened if he was still working and he had a Kindle. Would he have bought the eBook version. Having just asked him, he said he might, especially after I’d explained to him how a Kindle and the other readers that are available actually work. But what about the other commuters with small bags and far to go, and not wanting to carry around a hardback for the sake of reading whatever’s printed inside? Might not they also buy the eBook, especially if the alternative is waiting up to a year for the more portable option (with the exception of an audio version but let’s not go there)?

I’ve had a hunt around online and although I can’t find specific evidence of that, this page offers some kind of profile of an typical human eBook reader: “Your typical “e-book power buyer” (i.e. someone who buys at least one e-book every week) is an urban or suburban 30-44 year old with a full-time job. Next in line are 45-54 year olds, followed by 18-29 year olds. Not surprisingly, people in the 55+ age category buy the fewest e-books—at least, for now.” So actually the typical human eBook reader is exactly the kind of person who’d want a portable version of the book and perhaps has the disposable income to offset the loss of a physical item.

That release window has to be a sticking point. People have no patience, and why should they when media companies still attempt to impose artificial release windows which is presumably how a lot of people view this hardback/paperback gap. If through some bizarre set of circumstances, music publishers decided to attempt to save vinyl by delaying the release of cds and downloads for a year after the initial hotwax publication, the price of turntables would clearly increase, especially the ones which easily plug into PCs for the transformation into mp3s, crackle and hiss intact. It’s why the gap between theatrical and home release of films is ever narrowing.

It’s almost as though they want physical format sales to fail, and who could blame them? Even taking into account the environmental cost (as if that’s even an issue), there’s the whole process of printing and distributing paper books which is becoming ever more expensive thanks to the likes of fuel prices. Much easier to have the consumer effectively duplicate it themselves when they download. Plus, since the books can’t be resold or lent out easily (though libraries are trying their best even if they’re not going to be here much longer thanks to the drop in funding), readers are forced to buy brand new copies of everything, which is a major shift.

Now all we need to do is ask those young commuters if they’d buy the paperback instead if it was available on the same day. If they’re anything like me they’d still buy paper books. But then they’re not anything like me because I don’t have an eReader, will wait for a book to be published in paperback and don’t often read newly published books anyway, unless they feature a Time Lord in the lead role or is a four hundred year old play. The Caitlin Moran was my first in ages and I’m now deep into rediscovering the classics after deciding to collect the latest gorgeously designed edition of the Oxford World Classics.

Aha, and aha, what about Borders? What about all those US chains closing? What about the gloomy future of Waterstones and the independent book retailers? Some of that might have been about eBook sales, but it’s mostly because of people like me buying from Amazon and charity shops. Yes, but what about the death of the cd? Of vinyl? Isn’t that the same? That’s a portability issue too. Why lug around all those shiny discs when your mobile phone will play the same music. Oddly enough, I’ve gone back to my cd player because it’s more practical for listening to audiobooks because it allows you restart in the middle of a track and sentence.

All of which said, do I think the physical book will ever become obsolete with the advances in technology? Yes, probably, but it’ll take centuries, assuming we’re all still here. People just like paper books and it’s not until there are enough of us who’ve only ever been exposed to reading eBooks that there will be a change, the collective memory moves on, for the same reason I’m not scrawling this into a stone tablet or writing this on cloth. Apart from anything else, it’s a matter of usability. Hand someone a book and they immediately know what to do with it. Hand them an eBook reader and the learning curve begins.

The physical act of love, like the unexpected segway, will never be obsolete. This isn’t another topic discussed during my Information Studies course but there have certainly been enough films before and since which have tackled what a non-physical act of love would be like, usually involving virtual reality (The Lawnmower Man) or whatever the orgasmatron was (Sleeper). Or perhaps the question means in terms of onanistic pleasure thanks to electronic stimulation, either on a screen or in the hand, in which case you should never knock that sort of thing. To paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, it's sex with someone you love.

But to risk going a bit Swizz Tony from The Fast Show, we’ll never give up the physical act of love with (I’m assuming the question means) another person for much the same reason we can’t quit books. Because they’re tactile. Because they’re easy to access. Because they’re resilient. Because they’re not as susceptible to technological failure. Because they’re enjoyable to pick up in a book shop (not, let’s face it, I would know) and especially because they smell excellent when brand new. Well, alright, that’s stretching the metaphor a bit (a bit?) (bye, readers), but there’s no substitute for being with a person, especially someone you love.


What both questions really underscore is that people prefer the physical reality of things. Even eBook readers are things, even if we stop using paper for new releases, people will still have to hold something in their hands, just as people still want to hold people in their hands. Another way of interpreting the question could have been “will the physical act of reading become obsolete with the advances in technology?” but I still don’t think so. Film, television and theatre can offer unforgettable experiences, but as I’ve discovered myself in rediscovering reading there’s something very intimate about a book, an intimacy that is irreplaceable.

[Updated:  BBC's Imagine programme covered much the same topic tonight.  it's now available on the iPlayer.]

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What was the first album you bought and when and how? Listen to it again. How do you feel about it now?

Guest answer from Alison Gow.

Music When Stu asked me to write about the first album I bought my first thought was “Wow, it feels like yesterday”, and the second was “ohthankgodit’sacoolone”.

It would take a confessional journalist of Liz Jones proportions to get me to admit a Tight Fit first album purchase... luckily I can admit to it being Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, by David Bowie.

I had, of course, bought singles before - from the wonderful, cave-like Dale’s record store in Tenby’s Tudor Square. I was massively in awe of the imposing owner, Laurie Dale (dad of Charles the Corrie actor, fact fans), and fascinated by, and a bit scared of, the Iron Maiden album covers.

But an album was a big purchase for a nine-year-old - proper sums of cash were required for one, and also it was a commitment I didn’t feel ready to take.

Then my brother intervened.

Martin, four years older than me and the star of the local rugby and cricket teams, was cooler, more popular, and swore better, than anyone I knew.

Despite him warning me that when I started Big School I was not to tell anyone we were related, on pain of pain, and having once frightened me so badly by pretending to be a particularly dreaded Dr Who monster that I fainted, I idolised him.

His best mate had been given an album for his birthday he didn’t want, need or intend to keep and so was selling it.

My brother decided the person who should buy it was me - probably because he wanted it but wasn’t prepared to fork out - and so the pair of them proposed I should hand over some cash (I think it was £5) and in return I would be given music by someone I’d never heard of.

Astonishingly, I agreed and a couple of days later the album, with its weird cover art, was mine.

It was the most baffling, inexplicable thing I’d ever heard. Some of it was in Japanese - Japanese! - and it featured random swearing. I remember leaping, salmon-like, across the room to turn down the volume on It’s No Game Part II before my mum walked into my bedroom in time to hear someone sing the word ‘Shit’.

On a record player with built-in, tinny speakers, even the parts in English were hard to understand; ‘These pieces are broken’ became ‘these pieces of cocaine’ in my tuneless rendition for months... til I found the lyrics sheet, still inside the album cover.

I didn’t understand much of it but I absolutely loved that album. I loathed Fashion, with its nonsense “Beep Beep” refrain - it did ok in the charts - but that was the only track I’d skip.

I loved, loved, loved Scream Like a Baby - I had very vivid mental images of that song, probably informed by WWII films (it’s about political oppression so I was close, but no cigar) - but was baffled by Ashes to Ashes; all I knew was that it sounded terribly sad. My brother told me it was about a drug addict and hinted it was a sequel to an earlier song. My next trip to Dale’s saw me order a copy of Space Oddity (album) which earned me an approving nod off Mr Dale.

So, Stu asked me to listen to SMSC again for this blog post, and think about how it made me feel.

I have a digital copy now, of course, but I also still have my original, rather tatty album, which is as unscratched and loved as ever and it was that I dug out to replay.

Funnily enough, I hadn’t listened to it for years, digitally or otherwise so it was a rediscovery.

Even though I knew it was coming, the brash, shocking introduction still made me jump - all you hear are the crackles of the needle and vinyl, suddenly punctured by guitarist Fripp’s drawling chord on It’s No Game Part I.

What really struck me was how much of my childhood is tied to this album.

I didn’t just play it, I did what behaviourists term ‘active listening’ - questioning myself about how the songs made me feel, and what they brought back.

What I realised was something I hadn’t really thought about before - that this album, bought on a whim, really redefined my relationship with my brother.

We bonded over Bowie and, throughout our teen years when we behaved, at times, in pretty horrific ways towards one another, it was a common ground to which we could retreat.

We would discuss songs, the Bowie looks, have ‘what happened to his eye?’ conversations (pre-internet it was not easy to find out), compete for the best mix-tape, and go on buying sprees. Martin - with a job as glass collector in a local pub - earned more and bought the ‘rarities’ (imports and picture disks mainly) and I bought albums. I still have them; I can’t imagine what would make me part with them, even though all the tracks are on my iTunes.

So how did I feel when I listened to Scary Monsters for this blog? I felt grateful it had introduced me to Bowie’s amazing music, a little amazed at how well it had stood the test of time, and I felt a wave of affection for my big brother.

Because without him, this could have been 900-oddwords about Tight Fit.