Tuesday 20 April 2010

Please come to the Opera House, Langtry

Out in Texas on a road-trip, I drove west as far as Langtry, as far as I dared before I had to turn again to reach Austin in time. It was a dot on the map next to the Rio Grande. And when I got there, here's what I found.

At the end of the 19th century, Langtry was ruled by Judge Roy Bean. 'I am the law west of the Pecos River', declared Judge Bean to the rest of the USA. His courthouse doubled as the saloon bar, dispensing hooch and justice. When the US banned a heavyweight boxing match, Judge Bean stepped in and hosted the bout in Mexico, literally yards over the border on a sand-bed. He made money and a name for himself, cock-snooker.

There's a story about how the town came to be called Langtry. This story may not be true, but I want it to be so and that's more important.

It had been called Vinegaroon, after a scorpion-like creature called the Vinegaroon, that when startled does not have a sting in its tail but rather squirts a cloud of vinegar at its attacker. Handy if you're making salad dressing.

Judge Bean changed the name to Langtry because he was obsessed with English music-hall star Lillie Langtry. Certainly, he hung her photo over the bar. He probably dreamt of her. He christened his house the Opera House so this cock-snooker west of the Pecos River could write to invite her to the Opera House, Langtry.

Lillie Langtry did visit the town that was her namesake.

But not until a year after Judge Bean had died.



The Opera House

Lillie above the bar

Police Gazette report on the bout

Old house

Rio Grande

Sunday 11 April 2010

Time, it's a funny thing

I did a Peachy Coochy - the live art world's version of Pecha Kucha - on request of Tipping Point last summer as part of a night of reflections on climate change. A friend just requested I share words and pictures, so all follow.


I've never done a Peachy Coochy before. I was invited a week ago to do this one. I did a first burst of writing for it last Friday. Then procrastinated. And most of these slides I made this afternoon. Pretty much at the last minute. Then timed how many words I can speak in 20 seconds. Near enough.

What do you worry about? Recently I was researching happiness and wellbeing in teenagers. Some of that research was just asking them straightforward focus group stylee questions. Each group was asked collectively to arrange these particular concerns in order of importance for them. What did they worry about even? Could they agree?

Here's the typical answer for a group. The top for all groups were friends and family, followed by relationships. Social. That's important to remember. One kid actually laughed "Is anyone worried about the environment?" It was even beneath 'what's in the news?' because a couple were freaked out by swine flu.

John Berger on the procrastination of smoking. ‘A cigarette’, Berger said, inhaling deeply, ‘is a breathing space. It makes a parenthesis. The time of a cigarette is a parenthesis, and if it is shared you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.’”

I once designed a social game about The Tragedy of the Commons. This is a thought-experiment published in Science in 1968, the year before I was born. Imagine you're all shepherds grazing sheep on common ground. Where's the tragedy in that? Here it comes.

You get richer as an indvidual the more sheep you graze. But the more sheep collectively are grazed by all shepherds, the common ground is ruined. In the game, one group turned it into desert. You're always telling yourself that if the others are cheating, why shouldn't I?

In 1985 when I was a teenager my favourite film was Rumblefish. nd my favourite scene was a monologue on time by Tom Waits. I couldn't find it on the interweb, it exists only in the dark past of human knowledge. All I can remember is it starting 'Time, it's a funny thing'.

Here's a little test. For the duration of the next slide. I'll buy a pint for the first person who stands up and waves their arms. But if you all stay seated and still, I'll donate £10 to Plane Stupid. I promise. Ready Steady Go.


As I write this a couple of hours ago, I don't know what's just happened in the future. I suspect that someone may have shot up and then sat back down again protesting that they don't want to spoil it. Or that everyone sat expectantly, their gaze a gentle pressure. Are we ever otherwise aware of that gentle pressure?

50 years ago a Disneyland episode called Magic Highway predicted the future of transport. Here's a shot of the tubular highways that should have been criscrossing the globe. What struck me was just how few cars they imagined in the future. Some of their gadgets - like the cliff elevator - only worked for one family car at a time. They didn't show any waiting traffic.

50 years ago, here is a family in their camper van. We're often told that it's our grandchildren who will pay for our treatment of the planet. I wonder about the alternate reality in which everything happened 50 years sooner. Where our grandparents fucked up and we are their grandchildren.

Here's another experiment. If you ask people how happy they think they will be in a month's time. It matters what the weather is like when you ask them: if it's sunny when you ask them the question then they are more likely to imagine they will be happy in the future than if it is raining.

I was googling for an image of a snooze alarm because I snoozed a lot this morning. I found this gadget. It's called a Snuz N Luz. Everytime you press the snooze button it automatically donates money from your bank account to a charity that you hate. In this case, for geek.com, the Republican Party.

There were plenty experiments I found in my research that demonstrate we're happier when we make quick decisions that satisfy us, rather than agonising over decisions. Agony. That's the word we use. And we like to make choices from limited options. Two or three most. Not the freedom of choice so much as the tyranny.

Here are three choices.
Experiments reckon that in a choice of three like this we look for two that we can compare and take the one that's better. So here we'd most likely choose the bottle that's £8. But if we took away the option of the £15 bottle, choosing between the top two only, we'd choose the £7 bottle

Here are another three choices. Of course I constructed this rather rhetorically. But still, I wonder if these are the three choices we always are presenting to ourselves in our minds. And of course, I'm still sticking with the middle of the road choice.

In 2007 an alternate-reality game called World Without Oil asked people to write on the interweb the imagined stories of their own lives. As if oil was running out here and now. I thought it was a brilliant idea for a game. But then it didn't look like much fun to keep playing. Rather like a lot of hard work.

Sometimes I have a solipstic fantasy that everyday I am dying. In one way or another. But that a couple of minutes before I die in one universe, I skip into an alternate reality and avoid death. In my fantasy, it's exactly like slipping into the next lane on the road and overtaking myself.

As an epilogue. I'm writing these slides 2 hours ago and I can't help but worry that I am sounding worthy, preaching to the converted. Here's an image I found by googling crazy preacher to put a face to my fear. It's the Reverend Billy. Thanks.