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December 18, 2005

'Public mobile–phone conversations [are] a new form of media'

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So said Mark Curtis, author of the new book, "Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age," in Gary Silverman's column in this past weekend's Financial Times.

Silverman's column revolved around his recent trip on a London bus while being subjected involuntarily to one end of a woman's cellphone conversation along with another man who became as absorbed in the one–sided conversation as did Silverman as the call progressed.

Here's his most interesting piece.

    Mobile Moans

    A few days ago I found myself part of an unlikely threesome in the back of a London bus and the experience made me realise it is harder than ever to be a saint in the city.

    It was the morning rush hour and I was lucky to snare a seat in the next-to-last row.

    I sat facing the people in the rear, as you do in some of the new buses that have replaced London's Routemasters, the red double-deckers you boarded by jumping on at the back.

    The bus I was taking cuts through some of London's most heavily Jewish areas, and the man directly across from me was an obviously observant sort.

    He wore a yarmulke to complement his business suit, and he was studying a religious text written in Hebrew.

    To his right was a young woman with frosted hair, silver eye shadow and well-glossed lips, dressed in black and speaking into her mobile telephone about how stressful her life had become during the holiday season.

    "I have a shoot Monday, and I have a shoot Tuesday," she said, employing the dramatic stops and starts of a Shakespearean actor questioning whether it is better to be or not to be.

    "Wednesday, there's the art fair. Thursday, I have the AMV party."

    I didn't want to listen - I have problems of my own, you know - but I couldn't help myself.

    I felt like I was Marlow, the narrator in the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, and the woman on her mobile was my river in the jungle.

    I followed her every twist and turn.

    The surprising thing was that I had company in this pursuit.

    Every time the woman made a particularly dramatic point, I would find myself glancing in her direction and, as I did, my eyes would meet those of the observant man in the yarmulke sitting across from me.

    He was listening, too, and that got to me.

    I wondered how it was possible for a righteous man to be distracted from the word of God by a woman talking about a party at an advertising agency (AMV stands for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, a London agency that I cover for this newspaper but which did not invite me to its Christmas party, leaving me to learn about such things on the street, as it were).

    I figured that I needed an informed analysis of the situation and I turned to a man called Mark Curtis, a dotcomer with a social conscience who recently published a book called Distraction: Being Human in the Digital Age.

    Speaking via his mobile phone, Curtis did not disappoint.

    He reckoned that public mobile-phone conversations invariably turn into a performance and that made them a new form of media - as hard to ignore as a television set blaring in the corner of a pub.

    "You become subconsciously aware when you are making a mobile phone call that other people are listening," he said.

    "No matter how introverted you are, your phone call becomes a performance. The flip side of this is that everyone becomes aware of your performance."

    The problem with this new medium is that it is inherently annoying and there is little likelihood of improvement.

    In a better world, governments would pay actors to roam around reading poems or singing songs into their mobiles.

    But I'm not holding my breath.

    I suspect the new medium of mobile phone performance will continue to be dominated by the self-involved, the insufferable and, above all, by the tardy.

    You hear them all the time: "I'm on the bus! On the bus! I'll be there in 10 minutes! Calm down! Ten minutes! Wait!"

    What's being lost is the public transport culture that made it possible for people like the man in the yarmulke to study in peace.

    In fact, there are few places in cities more pious than the bus or the train.

    People of all kinds read scripture while they are on the move.

    But the relentless march of the mobile phone users (and I admit that I'm one of them) is putting an end to the quiet of the commute.

    Already, buses have become a disaster for anyone trying to think or read.

    Trains are a mixed blessing, suitable for readers as long as they stay underground.

    From the standpoint of mobile phone interruptions, the only truly safe form of high-speed, communal transportation is air travel.

    A colleague who covers aviation says that will change, and there will be mobile phones on planes, too (I can hear it now: "I'm 10 hours away! You can put the turkey in the oven!").

    But for now, air travel has become the new pleasure of the digital age, at least for me.

    You cannot be reached and neither can the other passengers. You are free to do your work, the Lord's work, or no work at all.

    There remains the possibility of bliss.

    I doubt I'll ever see the man in the yarmulke again but if I do, I hope it's on a plane. That way he will be nearer to God.

********************

I will note that I felt it incumbent to disabuse Silverman (via email) of the notion that an airplane still provides a safe haven from the shared telephone conversations of others.

Mark Curtis has a blog with a link (scroll down) that lets you download (free) chapter 8 ("Deep Media") of his book (top).

Should you wish to brush up on your performance skills, there is no better guide to what lies beneath than Erving Goffman's

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1959 classic, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life."

As Jerzy Grotowski memorably remarked, "Everyday life involves endless pretexts."

December 18, 2005 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Giant Personalized Fortune Cookie

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You won’t find them at the mall.

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These jumbo fortune cookies weigh nearly one pound (14 oz.).

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You choose the customized "fortune" — up to 120 characters/10 sentences.

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Each is baked, then dipped in chocolate and covered with decorative icing or edible decorations.

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Comes wrapped in cellophane and "tied with an exquisite ribbon to match the decor of the cookie."

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Pictured above and below are 10 of the 39 varieties available; from the top down, they are: Dark Chocolate with Dark Chocolate Drizzle; White Chocolate Confetti; White Chocolate with Dark Chocolate Drizzle; Christmas Caramel Toffee; Dark Chocolate with White Chocolate Drizzle; White Chocolate with White Chocolate Drizzle; Christmas Dark Chocolate; Christmas White Chocolate; Caramel Toffee with Chocolate Drizzle; Dark Chocolate Confetti.

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If you’re not sure or want to talk about it, there’s a dedicated "Cookie Counselor" who "will be more than happy to help you with any questions you may have":

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the number to call is 800-644-9474.

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"Order by December 20 (that's Tuesday) for guaranteed Christmas delivery."

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$28.50 apiece here.

December 18, 2005 at 05:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Why has peanut allergy become so common?

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Stephen Pincock raised the question in an excellent short article in this weekend's Financial Times.

He asked Robert Loblay, an allergy specialist in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital's allergy unit.

Said Loblay, "The short answer is that nobody knows."

The most popular hypothesis centers around an increase in peanut–containing foods being eaten during pregnancy and breastfeeding, with subsequent exposure and sensitization of babies to peanut protein allergens via the placenta or breast milk.

Here's Pincocks's piece.

    The Kernel of the Problem

    Word came from our son's school last week that we needed to avoid putting nuts, peanut butter sandwiches or muesli bars in our kids' lunchboxes.

    It turns out that one of the pupils has a pretty serious peanut allergy.

    The teachers, wisely, thought it best not to take any risks.

    There has never been a shortage of things for parents of young children to fret about, but these days peanut allergies must be close to the top.

    A highly sensitised person can react to as little as 1/2000th of a single peanut, and of all food allergies the peanut variety is most likely to be fatal.

    I was talking about this subject over dinner recently with a couple of my parents' generation.

    I could tell it was an issue they'd been primed for, because at the merest mention all four of their eyebrows raised and their voices notched up an octave.

    "Nobody had peanut allergies in our day," they exclaimed.

    "Where has it all come from?"

    I thought that was a pretty good question, so I put it to an allergy specialist in Sydney, Robert Loblay of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital's allergy unit.

    "Perhaps 20 years ago, peanut allergy was relatively rare," he explained.

    "It suddenly appeared on the scene about 15 years ago and seems to still be increasing dramatically."

    In his unit for example, 15 years ago they would have seen a handful of children with a peanut allergy in a year. Now they are treating 15 to 20 every week.

    OK, but why?

    "The short answer," says Loblay, "is that nobody knows."

    The slightly longer answer is that there are a couple of hypotheses floating around, all based on the idea that something must have changed to expose infants to more peanut proteins over recent years.

    One idea that has emerged from a study in the UK is that moisturising creams and lotions containing low-grade peanut oil are being used more on children.

    In Loblay's view this isn't likely to be the main factor.

    Instead, he thinks that the increase in peanut allergy is probably a result of women eating more foods containing the nut during pregnancy and breast-feeding, thus exposing their babies to peanut protein via the placenta or breast milk.

    One piece of evidence in support of this is that food allergies tend to occur more often in countries where the food is more widely eaten.

    For example, Japan has a much higher incidence of rice allergy than in the west, while Scandinavian countries have a higher rate of fish allergy.

    "People tend to become allergic to things they are exposed to," explains Loblay.

    Allergy has a strong genetic element to it, but exposure to certain foods may direct the form that allergy takes, he explains.

    Another interesting point is that something like 80 per cent of children who come to Loblay's unit after experiencing a severe peanut allergy reaction - known as anaphylaxis - had the reaction the first time they ate food containing peanuts as babies.

    The reason this is interesting is that allergies need to be primed (like the couple I was having dinner with above).

    The first exposure doesn't normally trigger an allergic reaction, but it primes the allergy-related class of antibodies in our system, known as IgE antibodies, to wreak havoc next time.

    So the fact that kids are experiencing allergic reactions the "first" time they are exposed as babies suggests they had in fact already been exposed - either in the womb, or via breast milk.

    For the past three or four years, Loblay and his colleagues have been conducting a study of their own to test this idea.

    Each time a mother comes into their unit with a child who has a peanut allergy, they explain that it might have happened via breast milk and suggest to them that if they have another child, they might want to cut back on peanut ingestion while pregnant and breastfeeding.

    The Sydney researchers are collecting data to compare the families who cut back on peanuts for their subsequent child with families who didn't.

    "Even though we're still in the early stages, the data are looking very suggestive that the prevalence of allergy is significantly reduced in the next child," Loblay says.

    The findings will be important if confirmed, but we're still left pondering why peanut consumption would have increased so dramatically in recent decades.

    There are a few possible options, but one that's been suggested to Loblay by dietician colleagues is the shift toward more vegetarian diets.

    Women who have moved away from eating too much meat are often advised to increase their intake of seeds and nuts, he says.

    By doing so, they may have increased their children's exposure to a peanut allergy.

    That idea already has enough currency for pregnant women to be advised against eating too many peanuts.

    No matter how much you love peanut butter, it certainly seems that avoiding binges during pregnancy could be an appropriately cautious move.

********************

Every now and then you see a headline like the one up top: the story is always the same.

About 1.5 million Americans have peanut allergies.

Every year, 100 or more deaths in the U.S. occur after an inadvertent exposure to even the faintest trace of peanuts.

December 18, 2005 at 02:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Paper Chopsticks

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From the website:

    Each chopstick is a single piece of paper rolled and baked until they they retain the rolled shape.

    No glues or mechanical means are used to create them.

    Finish your meal presentation by baking the utensils to be used and "serve" them warm right before you eat.

Dishwasher–safe.

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Designed by Joel Hoag for Elseware (joel@elsewareinc.com).

[via AW]

December 18, 2005 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A wonderful creation: 'The Window Shaker'

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Beyond great.

[via Stephen Bove]

December 18, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Crayola Crayon Maker

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Remember how exciting it was to open a new box of crayons and inhale that memorable smell?

Imagine what it smells like when you actually make your own Crayola crayons right at home.

From the website:

    Provide hours of creative fun to boys & girls by letting them melt and mold rainbow-swirled crayons with the new Crayola Crayon Maker!

    Fun for the child, extremely safe and low mess for mom.

    Recycle old worn crayons into new ones, using the crayon labels and crayon mold that is included.

I like that part about recycling the stubs and broken bits we used to throw out.

$23.99 here.

December 18, 2005 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Google and the price of gold — what do they have in common?

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Well, let's see.

Google closed Friday at its all–time high, $430.15 a share.

Gold reached a 25–year high of $540.90 an ounce last Monday before dropping back to close at $505.30 on Friday.

So which is more valuable?

Would you rather have a share of Google or an ounce of gold?

Sure, if you had to sell them today you'd opt for the gold and take the extra $110.

But what if you were given the choice of choosing one to sell in a year?

Or five years?

How about ten years?

Not so clear which way to go, is it?

Because let's face it: value exists only as a result of a collective agreement to accept a fantasy as reality.

Google is a company that makes a lot of money, true — but not nearly as much as its share price might indicate, based on how companies are commonly valued.

Gold is precious because people agree that it has an intrinsic value above and beyond its function in manufacturing.

People share a collective hallucination and call it money.

An old, dirty piece of paper with some ink on it buys you food?

How does that work?

Pretty well, apparently, since you've agreed to take part in the fantasy.

Money is truly a mysterious thing and the single best book I've ever read exploring how it came to be such a powerful force is James Buchan's "Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money."

Yes, since you were wondering: Buchan is the grandson of John Buchan, the great Scottish novelist.

December 18, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Cheetos Lip Balm

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And I thought you simply forget what you'd had for lunch — silly me.

[via whereisben and strangenewproducts.com]

December 18, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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