Networked Lucid Dreaming

One of the most moving pieces of art I’ve seen was a video by Emilia Telese. It was shown late at night in Brighton’s Lanes. Down one of the narrow twittens, a window was open to a room where the film was projected onto a wall. It showed the artist sleeping outside in the New Forest. Much of the emotion came from the story behind the piece; but also the vulnerability of someone sleeping out of doors.

I think there should be more art around sleeping – not just portrayals of sleeping, but involving actual sleep. Like this theatre show Lullaby, where the audience was supposed to fall asleep. Sleeping used to be a communal act, not a private one.

It’s something I’ve been wondering about with my Alexa experiments, thinking about skills that can be used in that near-sleep state to lull you towards dreams. But, although I’ll never have time to work on such a thing, there is one piece of sleep technology I would love to see.

Back at school, many years ago, I read a New Scientist article about lucid dreaming. It pointed out that, while the body is paralysed during sleep, some voluntary muscle control is retained and accessible to lucid dreamers. People in this state can use blinking to communicate with the world. As a Guardian article explains:

Some of the most interesting studies involve in-dream experiments, where participants are asked to complete pre-arranged actions in their lucid dreams while using eye movements to signal the beginning and end of their behavioural sequences

Since it is also possible for dreamers to receive sound cues from the outside world, we now have the technology to connect lucid dreamers to one another, to send messages between them.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of technology for a few years, but it turns out to be closer than I’d realised. People have built prototypes for controlling robotic arms from within dreams; or there are software projects to take transcriptions from dreams. This sort of thing has little practical use, but it could make produce some interesting art.

John le Carré Bucket List 2: A Murder of Quality

Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.

Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.

The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.

The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”

We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.

I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Twin peaks and the return of storytelling

I loathe exposition in horror stories, where the disturbing events are explained, systematised, and a solution proposed. The strangeness evaporates into a simple battle of good vs evil.

For much of 2017, Twin Peaks Club would meet at mine on Sunday evenings. We watched the original series, Fire Walk with Me, then the 18 episodes of the Return. In the aftermath of Twin Peaks’ final episode, someone announced that they knew nothing would be resolved. I felt there was a definite conclusion, I’m just not sure what it was.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

Since then I’ve read a lot about Twin Peaks, theories based on triplets, pocket universes, the Tempest and more. Every theory I read makes sense, yet contradicts all the others. I think the show is challenging its viewers to make their own myths.

One aspect of The Return is training the audience to be patient, to understand that there will be no easy answers. Deliberately frustrating scenes demonstrated this: the three minutes of silent floor sweeping, the wild goose chase for keys in the first episode. The show also questions the idea of watching TV – for example, with the glass box in New York, or the crowds watching as Carl Rodd (played by Harry Dean Stanton) cradles a dying child.

Everything looks ready for a curtain call in the last episode. Instead we find ourselves suspended from meaning as Cooper drives towards a conclusion. By the end of episode 17 it was obvious what needed to happen – cherry pie, rescuing Audrey, and defeating Judy. We’d even had some clunky exposition from Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Director David Lynch) explaining in simple terms what the show was all about, a long-running attempt to defeat an adversary.

The last hour deliberately undercut the idea of Cooper as hero saving a damsel in distress. The harrowing abuse inflicted on Laura Palmer cannot be removed so easily. We’re left with questions.

One of the joys of the new Twin Peaks is discussing these with other fans. Different details are drawn out. It feels like a collaboration, as if we’re all playing at a puzzle. Did Laura Palmer die? Where is Audrey? Are the continuity errors in the recent Twin Peaks book the result of whatever happened in the final episode? Does the White Lodge exist? Which characters in the show are dreaming? Is Sarah Palmer ‘Judy’? Why did the final scene echo this one from Season 2:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db9to1uazmU

This is not the last thing I’ll write about the show – I’ve made too many notes about too many theories. I can imagine playing with this puzzle for years. I need to rewatch scenes, listening for the Sarah Palmer dialogue supposed to be heard in the last scene. I’m looking forward to the all conversation where we ask ourselves who killed Laura Palmer.

Story: The City and the Country

There was a time when it was dangerous to explore villages you didn’t know. The world was smaller then, and a tiny place could be its own world.

If you travelled a lot, you learned to tell the signs (if you didn’t learn, you’d not be travelling long). You’d keep an eye open in case the church was chained shut, the grounds not tended in years. I left one place when I saw the yew trees had been burned; I later learned that witches ran wild there. This whole country was once filled with cults.

Now it’s safer in the villages, since the mystic clans of England are dying out. There are few jobs in the countryside, no way to make a living; most of the young leave. Even if they could find work, it wouldn’t buy a house there. Second homes and downsizers have pushed up the prices. Murder and disappearance would never stem the tide of people looking for a cosy cottage with which to impress their friends. A village could be unspoiled for centuries; then it appears in a guardian supplement. A couple of years later, the magic is gone.

The young from these cults struggle in the city. You can make prayers to the green man at a road crossing, but it’s less powerful than a riverside. Harvest offerings made in a supermarket are soon swept up; spells are forgotten under florescent lights. They do their best – instead of corn dollies, they tear coke tins into shapes of tiny people. Sometimes the chalk of a hopscotch grid contains a trace of magic; or shop dummies seem to watch the way the scarecrows did. But most of them struggle, falling prey to the magics of seagulls and litter bins. There are streets here that can eat you.

A few find their way. They are cared for by the cash machines and learn their own tricks. Even in the city, there are people you can sacrifice and no-one cares. There are people who have vanished while they are still walking the streets. If you can survive, you can eke out power, find new things to pray to. You can build villages in the cities and suburbs


This story was inspired by a conversation with Justin Pickard. I’ve been thinking about these thing s for a while, so there may be more to follow. It’s a first draft written while waiting for a plane.

Mobile blogging is the future

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on my mobile phone. We used to have a word for this. It was called moblogging, and it was going to be the future.

I’ve been re-reading articles about this from around 2003.  There’s a weird optimism about how hard people were trying to make moblogging happen.

Back then, blogging from a mobile phone was tricky. You could send a blog post via email or MMS, but you couldn’t edit it until you were back at a computer. This was a time before apps and iPhones, when the few applications for mobile were rudimentary. But people still persevered with moblogging. Part of this was the struggle to find a use for camera phones and MMS – which a lot of people originally found unnecessary.

This was the early days of mobile computing. The guardian even tried to edit its G2 supplement from Brighton beach during summer 2003. At the time, this was the world’s first beach with WiFi, where volunteers had set up the pier-to-pier network. WiFi was still sometimes hard to find then – during the party conferences you’d see people at night using laptops on the seafront benches. 

(That article contains someone speculating that people “could get a wireless device to walk around the city and it would ping them with announcements saying look up here, and here’s some information about this building…” I’ve seen similar ideas pitched repeatedly over the last 20 years. The technology for this is now ubiquitous, but the applications are still not being produced. ) 

One of the pioneers of moblogging was Warren Ellis, who wrote back in January this year: “Remember “moblogging”? I was doing that in the 1990s with a collection of kit that even at the time seemed the product of a dated alternate future.  Modular, silvered plastics, plugs and stub antennae. Nokia phones of styles you wouldn’t have been surprised to encounter in SPACE: 1999.” Other posts from 2006 and 2004ish give an idea of the issues involved.

Reading back on these days is strange. It’s easy to forget the time when we used to go to a particular room in the house to use the internet.

In 2003, a Jupiter analyst claimed that of the estimated 500,000 bloggers, a quarter might one day  use moblogging tools to update their sites. He said “This isn’t the killer app for mobile devices.”

More optimistic was Tom Hume of future platforms: “The whole point of weblogging is ease-of-use: that it makes it simple for people who don’t care about technology to run their own sites. Moblogging is a natural progression from this: as long as it’s easy to use and marketed well, I believe it’ll lead to a surge of all sorts of folks creating their own content.

Moblogging never took off, at least not under that name. But Tom got it right, and moblogging became so successful that the term has actually disappeared. Companies like Manywhere, Moblogger, Wapblog and FoneBlog failed to deliver moblogging to the masses. Instead it was three companies that had yet to be born: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Everyone is moblogging and nobody thinks anything of it. But I’m writing this post on a smartphone app using WordPress. The jetpack server plugin means WordPress’s app is finally usable (even if it eats the occasional post). Moblogging is here now.

Of course I could just post to Facebook. But the great thing about moblogging is the openness of it. It harks back to a time when it was easier to distribute your content between sites; twitter has long since turned off its RSS feeds. Everything is being locked behind walled gardens, access swapped for marketing. Judging by the scale of these platforms, most people aren’t too worried. But I’m happy to be finally moblogging, 13 years after I first tried to do it. And I’m still excited about moblogging’s future.

Three Minute Fiction: Bathtime Apocalypse

Photo by Al_HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In an infinite multiverse, there are an infinite number of ways for the world to end. Some are tragic – and some are silly. On one sad earth, it was sentient bathtubs that did it; a world reduced to a charnel house by plumbing that came to life. News anchors wept as much from the indignity as from the doom. The last human was glad when it was all over.

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

Three minute fiction: Brighton

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

Brighton

Source: Chris Gold (CC NY-BC 2.0)

After Brighton was franchised they built replicas around the world. In Pyongyang, factory workers are made to queue for an i360 replica. In Delhi, the Grubbs burger concessions sell no meat. And in Buenos Aires, a statue of Borges presides over the Steine.

A thousand copies, each now veering from the original. Here, an undamaged pier juts out over what was once a lake. There, a lazy vulture wheels around an imitation of the Churchill Square car parks. The original is lost – it must be one of these places, but no-one remembers which.

Three minute fiction: The Conductor

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

The Conductor

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

One of the most notorious video nasties was 1983’s The Conductor. Much of the film is dull – tedious shots of the conductor going about his business. Serious gorehounds often left the cinema before the shocking end sequence. Nobody ever quite agrees on what they see: like Psycho’s shower scene, frame-by-frame analysis reveals none of the supposed mayhem. But that last shot – the worn hand clipping a ticket – became the source of many bleak nightmares. Nobody ever watches the film a second time.

Three minute fiction: puppets

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)

Puppets

As a child, Ella was terrified of the puppets. They covered every wall of the room, meaning whichever way she looked, some were behind her. She tried to memorise the position of their limbs, to know if they’d moved since she last turned around.

One night she woke with a puppet in her bed. Her mother forced her brother to admit he’d put it there. Sobbing, the next day, he told her the truth – he was too scared to even touch those things.

John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.