Steven Johnson’s history of what we do for fun

Tell ’em what you’re going to say, tell ’em, tell ’em what you said. I believe that’s the formula that many preachers follow when they give their sermons. The bit from a book below is from the “tell ’em what you’re going to say” bit, in other words the Introduction (pp. 8-11), of Steven Johnson’s Wonderland, which I ordered from Amazon back in October, and am now starting to dip into:

Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth. At best, the world of play and amusement belongs to the side bars of the main narrative: the spoils of progress, the surplus that civilizations enjoy once the campaigns for freedom and affluence have been won. But imagine you are an observer of social and technological trends in the second half of the eighteenth century, and you are trying to predict the truly seismic developments that would define the next three centuries. The programmable pen of Jaquet-Droz’s Writer – or Merlin’s dancer and her “irresistible eyes” – would be as telling a clue about that future as anything happening in Parliament or on the battlefield, foreshadowing the rise of mechanized labor, the digital revolution, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

This book is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future. This is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence. This is a history of what we do for fun. One measure of human progress is how much recreational time many of us now have, and the immensely varied ways we have of enjoying it. A time-traveler from five centuries ago would be staggered to see just how much real estate in the modern world is devoted to the wonderlands of parks, coffee shops, sports arenas, shopping malls, IMAX theaters: environments specifically designed to entertain and delight us. Experiences that were once almost exclusively relegated to society’s elites have become commonplace to all but the very poorest members of society. An average middle-class family in Brazil or Indonesia takes it for granted that their free time can be spent listening to music, marveling at elaborate special effects in Hollywood movies, shopping for new fashions in vast palaces of consumption, and savoring the flavors of cuisines from all over the world. Yet we rarely pause to consider how these many luxuries came to be a feature of everyday life.

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History. I have called this phenomenon “the hummingbird effect”: the process by which an innovation in one field sets in motion transformations in seemingly unrelated fields. The taste for coffee helped create the modern institutions of journalism; a handful of elegantly decorated fabric shops helped trigger the industrial revolution. When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes. Everyone knows the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well.

Although this account contains its fair share of figures like Charles Babbage – well-to-do Europeans tinkering with new ideas in their parlors – it is not just a story about the affluent West. One of the most intriguing plot twists in the story of leisure and delight is how many of the devices or materials originated outside of Europe: those mesmerizing automata from the House of Wisdom, the intriguing fashions of calico and chintz imported from India, the gravity-defying rubber balls invented by Mesoamericans, the clove and nutmeg first tasted by remote Indonesian islanders. In many ways, the story of play is the story of the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan worldview, a world bound together by the shared experiences of kicking a ball around on a field or sipping a cup of coffee. The pursuit of pleasure turns out to be one of the very first experiences to stitch together a global fabric of shared culture, with many of the most prominent threads originating outside Western Europe.

I should say at the outset that this history deliberately excludes some of life’s most intense pleasures-including sex and romantic love. Sex has been a central force in human history; without sex, there is no human history. But the pleasure of sex is bound up in deep-seated biological drives. The desire for emotional and physical connections with other humans is written into our DNA, however complex and variable our expression of that drive may be. For the human species, sex is a staple, not a luxury. This history is an account of less utilitarian pleasures; habits and customs and environments that came into being for no apparent reason other than the fact that they seemed amusing or surprising. (In a sense, it is a history that follows Brian Eno’s definition of culture as “all the things we don’t have to do.”) Looking at history through this lens demands a different emphasis on the past: exploring the history of shopping as a recreational pursuit instead of the history of commerce writ large; following the global path of the spice trade instead of the broader history of agriculture and food production. There are a thousand books written about the history of innovations that came out of our survival instincts. This is a book about a different kind of innovation: the new ideas and technologies and social spaces that emerged once some of us escaped from the compulsory labor of subsistence.

The centrality of play and delight does not mean that these stories are free of tragedy and human suffering. Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands. The quest for delight transformed the world, but it did not always transform it for the better.

The old black router and the new white router – from normal style back to nerd style

No time for much here today, although I have today done more than I usually do in the way of commenting. Much of the day was spent snoozing in bed while The Guru sorted out the outage, and then with me catching up on all the emails I had failed to respond to sooner.

But, I am at least able to record for posterity the evil behaviour of the black and black-hearted router, the one looking like the one in the picture on the left of these two, which waited until it learned I had lung cancer and then decided that then was the perfect time for it to conk out. Just after Christmas. During Lockdown:

On the right, the new white knight in shining white plastic armour, which, today, in the hands of The Guru, rescued me. Actual photo by me of the actual thing.

On a slightly more serious note, I am interested by the aesthetic direction of the move from the old router to the new one.

I usually expect the aesthetics of electronic gadgetry to go from, in the early days of a gadget, nerd-style looking-like-something-curvey-out-of-a-Star-Wars-battle-fleet, to normal rectangular black box, once the normals get involved in buying it directly, as a commodity that they actually sort of understand. I recall CD players in cheap arrays of not-very-hi-fi treading this path, from freakish to straight black boxes you could pile up easily with all the other related devices. Yet in this case, the direction went from normal to nerd. I wonder why.

And that thought is all I can manage to do here today.

Happy New Year to all my readers and to any others passing by, what with things here having become that little bit more interesting over the last few days.

Peter Caddick-Adams: If D-Day had been postponed it would have been a catastrophe

I have been reading the recently published book by Peter Caddick-Adams about D-Day, entiled Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, the follow-up to Snow and Steel, which was about the Battle of the Bulge. James Holland, quoted on the cover of Sand and Steel, calls it “Magisterial”, which is his way of saying that it is a huge book, with a huge amount of judiciously presented detail. The book is, I’m afraid, too “magisterial” for me now to be ploughing through it from start to finish. What I am now doing is feeling my way into it by looking up, in the index of Sand and Steel, people involved in D-Day whom I already know a little about, and then seeing what Caddick-Adams has to say about them.

I already know, for instance, a bit about Captain James Stagg, the one who supplied Eisenhower with that famous weather forecast, of a break in the bad weather on June 6th 1944, which enabled Ike to say: Go.

Caddick-Adams disapproves of how a little too much honour for this has been heaped only upon Stagg. Stagg was not himself a professional weather forecaster. He did summarise and pass on to Ike what the real forecasters, half a dozen of them, were telling him. That is honour enough for Stagg, but the real hero was the elaborate system that gathered together all the relevant information. Also, the German forecasters told pretty much the same weather story to their superiors, contrary to what Stagg-fans like me had been assuming.

Caddick-Adams is very good about somewhat misleading tales of this sort. His passion for detail, and for tracking down absolutely everyone and anyone who could tell him those details, is all mixed up with him wanting to know what really happened, as opposed to the stories that some people have been in the habit of telling one another, in movies for instance. This great generation of warriors, you can hear Caddick-Adams insisting, deserves nothing less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That being why his books are typically so long. The whole truth of something like D-Day can’t be told in a hundred and fifty pages. Sand and Steel is one thousand and twenty five pages long.

Of a lot more interest, to me, than who exactly we should be praising for that most famous and famously accurate of weather forecasts, is what Caddick-Adams says about what might have happened if the weather on June 6th not been so favourable, and if Ike had consequently been forced to say: No. Not yet. Or for that matter if, given the forecasts he did get, Ike had simply said no anyway.

To know this, you have to know what range of dates the Allies considered suitable for the D-Day landings, weather permitting, and why. The relevant passage from Sand and Steel goes thus (pp, 346-347):

Given the specific moon and tidal requirements for the landing, Hogben recalled …

… Hogben being one of Stagg’s weather forecasters …

… they had just six possible days to invade in June: 5th-7th and 19th-21st. ‘We worked out the odds on the weather on any one of those four days conforming to our needs as being 13-1 against. So meteorologically, D-Day was bound to be a gamble against the odds.’ Admiral Alan G. Kirk, commanding the Western Task Force, recorded the factors that needed to come together for the invasion: ‘The night before D-Day had to be reasonably light so that convoys could keep station with ships darkened: he wrote. ‘Airborne operations also required this, necessitating a night with a full moon, or nearly so.’ Next, Kirk identified that ‘H-Hour needed one hour of daylight before the initial landings to enable bombarding ships to neutralise German batteries and drench the landing beaches’, but it needed to be ‘sufficiently before high water for the demolition parties to remove beach obstacles while still dry’.

However, it also had to be ‘sufficiently after low water in order to permit the landing on certain British beaches where sand bars prevented an assault until two or three hours later’. Ideally, the day would be fixed to ensure ‘a second high water in daylight to permit maximum unloading’. In conclusion, wrote Kirk, ‘the only dates on which all these factors were available were 21-23 May; 5-7 and 19-21 June, or 3-5 July’, though Stagg later observed that if they waited for the perfect set ‘it would take 140 years’.

So, if June 6th had not been the right day to be D-Day, what day would have been?

Here is what Hogben said about that (p. 351):

In speculating what would have happened if the poor weather had persisted on 6 June, leading to postponement until the nineteenth, the New Zealander Hogben stated, ‘As it happened, on 17 June, all six of us produced a forecast for the nineteenth for almost perfect conditions – the invasion would definitely have gone ahead, and would have been an utter catastrophe. Complete failure – for on 19 June the biggest storm of the twentieth century lashed the Channel and I doubt many landing craft would have even made it to the beaches. They would all have been swamped with the high winds. It does not bear thinking about.’

Says Caddick-Adams:

Recent statistical analysis supports this. The storm was a ‘once in forty years’ event, a tempest of slightly less ferocity having lashed the Calvados coast in February 1905, emphasising how lucky Eisenhower was to have opted to go on 6 June. …

Under a photo from his own (presumably vast) collection, of a huge wave crashing over the sea wall at Arromanches-Les-Bains, Caddick-Adams hammers home the same point (also p. 351):

The Overlord meteorologists were aware that violent storms often blew in from the Atlantic to batter the Normandy coast. Much documented was the hurricane of February 1905, which threw huge columns of water at the future invasion beaches and sites for the two artificial harbours. In June 1944, the Allied weathermen spotted a lull in the bad weather, but the tempest that began on 19 June replicated the violence of 1905. Postponing the invasion from 6 June to the nineteenth would thus have been disastrous for D-Day and the landings would have failed.

The point being, although the Allied forecasters got their forecast for June 6th right, they got the forecast for June 19th totally wrong, and unanimously so. They would definitely have said: Go. Ike would surely have concurred. And, it would have been a disaster.

The USSR conquering a whole lot more of Europe than it did. No President Eisenhower. Maybe the atom bomb being ready before the end of the war in Europe? The alternative history ramifications are endless.

Maybe D-Day buffs have long known about this June 19th aspect of the D-Day story, but it was all completely new to me.

Driving away from poverty

Helen Dale, in the course of a review of Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works:

It is telling that Soviet authorities allowed the 1940 film Grapes of Wrath to be released in the country as a propaganda exercise. However, cinemagoers were amazed how in America people fled poverty in a car. In Soviet Russia, you hoofed it. The movie was withdrawn.

The point being that a lot of innovation happens when less educated people have just enough affluence, which includes having just enough time, to tinker with stuff, and thereby accomplish things that the educated people all agreed couldn’t be done.

Structural glass

I bang on here a lot about the use by the latest wave of modernist architects of glass, most recently in this posting. And of course there is the way that glass now fills modern life with multiple and complex reflections.

Well here is another glass based posting, this time featuring some techies who are concerned with the ever more impressive structural qualities of glass. Basically, they want to make a entire footbridge out of the stuff:

That’s it really. The details of what these particular techies are doing to the particular sort of glass they are playing around with are not my point, although the last thing I’d want to do is try to stop you pursuing this matter by reading everything at the other end of the second link above, if that’s what you now want to do. What is my point is that nobody in the glass business would be in the least bit surprised to be told about such a research effort. Making glass stronger? But of course.

Glass used to be the very definition of fragile. Not any more. The only place glass still shatters at all regularly, spewing bits in all directions, is in the movies. Try running through a big window in real life, and it will be a similar experience to running into a wall. The main difference is that you’ll probably bounce back rather more. Glass does that these days, for the same reason trees have always bent in the wind. (A fact which can do wonderful things with those reflections.)

Giant mouse

Well, no, not really. Actually a miniature carpet:

I did my best with some rotating and cropping, but it still looks like a regular sized mouse and a tiny carpet. Which of course it is. It’s number 22 of these silly things.

Number 19 is a sign saying: “Don’t kill your wife with work! Let electricity do it.” Which is entertaining to see, but you probably wouldn’t want to own it.

But I did like number 31, socks with sandals.

Number 46, a mobile phone that looks like a gun, might get you, as they point out, into trouble, but it might also get you out of trouble. Also, a gun that looked like a mobile phone might come in very handy in certain situations. They wouldn’t know what hit them until it hit them. But presumably Q has already done this.

Big Jim’s Trims behind its windows

This afternoon in Wilton Road:

It was the Walken faces that got my attention, as was surely the idea. Big Jim, or maybe just one of his hirelings, was behind the glass, doing a trim, and I was with someone. So this was all done in haste. But despite all the reflections and the confusions, I like them, and partly because of all the reflections and the confusions. What with windows being such a big deal in architecture these days. They create a lot of the particular look and feel of our times, the look being reflections, and the feel being the resulting confusions.

It’s late. All I’m really doing is showing you some half decent photos that I did today, rather than photos from my previous life.

Here’s the Big Jim’s Trims website. It’s a franchise. So, that won’t be Big Jim himself, just a guy with tattoos on his arms.

And here’s what that Barbicide sign is about. I can make no sense of it myself, but if you want to try, click on that, and I wish you luck. “Barbicide” ought to mean killing barbers, or maybe killing barbie dolls. Is that a clue?

Charles Dance in Goswell Road

Back in 2016, a friend was regularly working in the Angel area, and I would often meet up with her at the Angel Tube, there to repair to a local coffee and cakes parlour. When we parted, I would often walk towards the Big Things of the City, photoing as I went. The photo I photoed of “Tower 42” and 22 Bishopsgate in this posting, being an example of the kind of photo I would photo on this sort of walk.

But perhaps rather more intriguing was this:

What was a big picture of noted veteran Brit Thesp Charles Dance, under the word “TAPESTRY” doing, in this part of London? What did this mean? I’ve been intending to mention this for years, but have never got around to it.

Recently, I made a breakthrough, by noticing that in the top left corner of the photo, next to the No loading sign, there is information, of the sort I should have photoed directly and completely:

Tapestry, it would seem, is the sort of enterprise that does specialist printing of a sort that especially interests me. Things like big photos on vinyl sheets. Such things have increasingly made their presence felt in London in recent years, as I have often noted here. Who, for instance, makes images like this one? Probably not Tapestry. But that’s the industry that Tapestry is a part of.

Alas, Tapestry is (or was (for I do not know if it is still there)) either too busy, or too preoccupied with other more pressing matters to be bothered with having its own website. I guess with a business like this, where everything has to look just so but where there is so very much to go wrong, word of mouth is everything, and internet boosting is beside the point. Or maybe Tapestry is no more, along with any website it may once have had.

Nevertheless, the picture of Charles Dance is pretty much explained. This wasn’t a plug for Charles Dance, though presumably his permission was obtained. No. It was a plug for Tapestry, who did the picture of Charles Dance.

Is it still there now, I wonder? Memo to self: go back there again and find out. (Guess: Not.)

One phone call

Alexander Larman writes, in The Critic, about the catalytic phone call, from a movie maker to a writer, that resulted in Goodfellas getting made, thirty years ago:

Scorsese told Pileggi, “I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life”, to which the understandably overwhelmed writer replied, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”

Good to see The Critic getting noticed by Instapundit, which is how I came across this.

Flying with geese

Tim Skellet:

OK, folks, I’m off to see a man about some geese.

Not with a view to buying them, but with a view to flying with them a short while. Will explain later. Wish me luck, it may not work out at all.


this is what I want to do, why I’m here. Hoping I get to do it. My photo yesterday:

Vekica says:

Fly Away Home!

Just what I was thinking. I’ll be that movie triggered a lot of this flying with geese stuff, putting it up there with swimming with dolphins.

So much better to fly with birds that to shoot them with guns like so many used to and some still do.