First Impressions of Virtual Reality

I recently had my first chance to experience virtual reality. I’d played around with Google Cardboard, but the Oculus Touch headset was a whole world away from that. And, as impressive as the visual aspects were (and they were very impressive) the thing that amazed me most was how well the controllers worked, how easily I could interact with virtual objects.

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The first surprise about the two handheld controls was how they were present in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s strange being blindfolded from reality by the headset, but the controls are still visible, their position tracked by the cameras, even when you’re not holding them. Once you pick them up, sensors guess the location of your hands, then render them in the virtual world. I looked down to see my hands replaced with robotic ones. It was an incredible illusion.

The Toybox Demo was amazing. A virtual robot hands you objects which you can grip. The feedback from the sensors when you grasp things is crude, but it works. You feel as if you have a real presence and agency in the imaginary world.

I played the game Robo Recall and was blown away. I was immersed in combat with the robots, nervous about them getting behind me. The techniques for ‘walking’ around the game world were effective, meaning I had a sensation of exploring without having to move in reality (and therefore walk into the table).

There are two downsides to virtual reality. The first is the nausea – not as bad as I’d expected, but I suspect I’d suffer if I played for much longer than half an hour. The other is the cost – about £700 for the kit, and on top of that the cost of a powerful PC. Hopefully the price will fall quickly.

As a child of the 90s, I’ve spent decades being told that virtual reality was the future. I never had a chance to try out those early, cheesy demonstrations, but saw intense VRs represented in comics, books and TVs. The Oculus felt like all those promises were coming true. And, in a nice touch, the makers seem to have adopted  a lot of the signifiers of fictional VR in the Oculus (Japanese architecture, welcoming by female voices, use of infinite white landscapes etc) and that made it seem somehow familiar.

I can’t wait to get a longer chance to play on one of these. And I really want to try out some horror games.

The turning of Brighton’s seasons

Via scribe, I recently read an article on kigo in the modern world. Kigo are the seasonal words and phrases used in Japanese Haiku. As the form has spread across the world, there is a debate over how these concepts translate and whether they are essential to haiku. Many  kigo are local; for its entry on kigo, Wikipedia lists a selection of Southern Californian seasonal images.

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Last night I went for a walk along Brighton seafront. The i360 was dark, as if ashamed of its recent breakdowns. Crueller people, including the BBC, have labelled it ‘faulty tower’. The tide was out, meaning it was possible to walk along the sand. We could have walked among the West Pier ruins, had they not been demolished to make way for the i360.

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Further along the seafront the carousel had been erected ready for the summer season.

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I don’t know exactly when it went up this year – it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down this end of the seafront.A few years ago, I performed a piece called Two Towns, about how Brighton was two places, one in summer, another in winter. Brighton can be a depressing place in the cold, but it’s glorious on a sunny day. The return of the Carousel means the year has turned (see also: 2010, 2016).

Last weekend, it was bright enough that I got my first sunburn while I was out hiking. The town is filling up with visitors and the clocks have gone forward, giving everyone a couple of hours between work finishing and dark. While there are people out swimming every day of the year here, it will be soon time for the summer swimmers to join them. It’s good to be in Brighton right now.

The importance of blogging

I’ve recently been doing a blogging challenge with some friends, trying to write a post a day. I’m doing pretty well so far, managing a continuous stream of posts since the 19th. Some days it’s easier than others.

I like blogging. I try to produce complete thoughts, more developed than they would be on FB or twitter. Unless you’re doing a link blog, you can’t just chuck out a URL but need to give it some context. Writing daily is working well for me, and I’m looking at drafting my book by writing lots and lots of smaller posts.

My first blog started in October 2007. The initial post was throat-clearing:

I figured that it was about time that I put some stuff on my web-pages. I’ve put up pages before and then not touched them for months so I decided to use Blogger. This way I can add updates without having to use an FTP client. There is no guarantee that I will find anything interesting to say, but we shall see. Wednesday, October 03, 2001

I still have the files on my hard drive, and one day I’ll add them to this site. I’ve added content from some of the other blogging platforms I’ve used. A lot of the images have disappeared over time, but the text is there. And I like looking back on those memories, or being able to call up the little mini-essays I’ve written.

I’d love to see a revival in blogging. Facebook tends to produce less considered, less complete thoughts. And, while Facebook does a good job of distributing updates, it’s not as neutral as a blog. It shows you the things it thinks you’ll be interested in, the things that keep you interacting with their site. That isn’t quite the same thing as what is actually interesting. It also cuts out a lot of content. Some people seem to get screened-outcompletely by the algorithm. Facebook hides too much. It picks which posts it thinks should be distributed.

We need to see the boring posts. It’s good to know what other things someone is into, even if we find ourselves skipping them. It’s the same problem with online news – when you buy a physical newspaper, you get the articles you want and a load of other ones. You can see the space taken up by things you don’t care about, work out how important your passions are. As news becomes filtered and sorted, we lost that comparison with the boring things.

Blogging isn’t perfect. It’s not obvious to most people how to follow them, and it seems less convenient than Facebook. The Indie Web is promising, but it’s still difficult to use – it’s missing its Blogger moment, where it becomes easy for most people to get it working. And a guide on ‘how to follow blogs’ deserves a whole post of its own.

The best thing about blogs is that they produce a collection of thoughts, that they do some additional work with the links and ideas we encounter online. Quoting Warren Ellis for the second day in a row: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

Commuter Update

Work continues on the commuter folklore book. The text so far is strange and fascinating; the publishing side is proving interesting too. There is so much to plan – layouts, covers, proof-reading and so on. Asking about a proof-reader led to a flood of offers – some of whom included typos in their emails. It looks as if I have someone to work with, and I just need to finish the text.

Currently I am doing lots of research and filling my head with lots of ideas:

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The (factual, real world) history of commuting has turned out to be absorbing. Commuting predates both the railways and the coaches – there used to be ‘walking commuters’ who came to London from outlying villages. The word commuter itself dates turns out to be American and dates back to the 1840s.

Most interesting is the way the train commuter has gone from aspirational figure to derided as dull.  Early commuters were taking advantage of new technology to live outside the grimness of cities. By the twentieth century they were mocked in comedies like Monty Python and Reginald Perrin.

As I research, I’m starting to write the new pieces. Some are emerging from notes made in the years since the original project. Others have been triggered by the books I’ve been reading. Many years ago, on the Bad Signal mailing list, Warren Ellis wrote about where his ideas come from:

I flood my poor ageing head with information. Any information. Lots of it. And I let it all slosh around in the back of my brain, in the part normal people use for remembering bills, thinking about sex and making appointments to wash the dishes. Eventually, you get a critical mass of information. Datum 1 plugs into Datum 3 which connects to Datum 3 and Data 4 and 5 stick to it and you’ve got a chain reaction.

I’ve overloaded my mind with the details and background of commuting, along with the history of British railways. It’s now combining with all the oddness that usually sits in my head: Sussex ghosts, ley lines, modern hauntings, what the Internet really is. And it’s time to put it together. I can’t wait to see what comes out.

A new Brighton bookshop

Last week, I wrote about the sad demise of the PS Brighton bookshop. There was also some good Brighton bookshop news recently, with a new place opening in the open market, run by John Shire.

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John has been running The Smallest Bookshop in Brighton for some time, with tiny batches of books available at different locations around the town. The new venue doesn’t really qualify as small, as there are lots of books available. Some really good ones too – the shop sells a number of books that I love. On my first quick visit I replaced a book I previously owned that had been surrendered before my last house move.

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(I think that is why Brighton has so many good second hand books available – most people don’t have room to keep many, and have to discard books they would otherwise keep)

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John is also owner of Invocations Press, which has published a number of excellent books. Among them is Bookends, John’s “Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade”. It records many much-loved and much-missed shops, and includes a bibliopolyography listing all known Brighton bookshops. It is also a very amusing book, with some brilliant asides – my favourite being the claim that “all books about Brighton are legally obliged to mention [Aleister] Crowley

4/3/17 – Over on Facebook, John wrote: “Worth mentioning too that it would have been impossible without the help of Mark at Ububooks in the Open Market who shares the majority of the Unit as well. So, a greater range of books than you could shake a stick at. Which you are welcome to do. As long as it’s not muddy and bits don’t fall off it. And you buy something after you’ve had your unusual fun.

Hunting the Wilmington Ley

Today would have started better if I had remembered that the clocks went back. I just about made it to the station on time to meet Vicky Matthews for the train to Berwick. From there we walked along the A27, past the giraffes at Drusillas, and into the village of Wilmington. There’s some strange roadkill in this part of Sussex – what is that doll’s arm doing?

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We were out to explore the ley-line beginning in Wilmington. It’s described in a couple of Paul Devereux books, including the Ley Hunters Companion (written with Ian Thompson). Devereux writes that “other leys may pass through and near the long man and we in no way claim this to be the best“. No explanation is given for why this was the one in the book.

Our journey started at the church of St Mary and St Peter. Last time I was here was with the British Pilgrimage Trust. The church is beautiful and in the grounds is a 1000 year old yew tree. We stopped in its shadow for a drink of tea.

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The church sits at the Northern end of the ley-line, with the second point being the nearby priory, which is now run by the Landmark Trust. The two are so close together that it almost seems like they should be a single site.

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The third point on the line is the Long Man of Wilmington. The two vertical lines beside him are sometimes seen as doorways, an image used notably in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. Watkins, the discoverer of ley-lines, has claimed that he is a prehistoric surveyor, the Dodman, with his two sighting staves. Devereux suggests that the long man is related to the nearby Litlington Horse, and makes the fanciful suggestion that there might be a South Down zodiac similar to the Glastonbury one.

(Interestingly the Long Man is said to be at the centre of a cross made between the churches of Alfriston, Folkington, Selmeston and Jevington)

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Fences forced us to make quite a detour to reach the fourth point on the line, the barrow on Windover Hill. The alignment of the church/priory and long-man proved a useful guide towards this point, although the long-man was hidden on the hillside. The presence of fences and prescribed footpaths make it difficult to get much feeling for the straight lines, but at this point I could imagine the ley-markers as useful way-points along the route. Watkins theorises about travellers using leys to make sure they kept on-track, even as they meandered around marshes and obstacles.

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The depressions near the barrow at Windover Hill were, I believe, the traces of flint-digging. Local legend suggests they are craters from missiles hurled at the giant of Windover Hill from the giant at Firle. It’s often claimed the long man was  originally the outline of the body a giant who died there, killed by pilgrims or another giant.

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The final point, in Friston forest, was impossible to find, even with the GPS. I regretted not bringing dowsing rods, which might have been more help. I will try and get some on my trip to Avebury in June. This final ley point also some distance from the other points would have been hidden by the hillsides.  Its difficulty seems to contradict the idea that the line was used for navigation; although it’s always possible there are points missing in the middle.

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The route led us to some beautiful scenery on the way to Exceat. We joined with the South Downs Way, which felt pleasantly familiar. Vicky had brought a picnic of daal, which we ate at Cuckmere Haven before making the long bus journey back to Brighton. I even caught a little sunburn. It was a good day.

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The Papernet

The idea of the Papernet emerged around 2006-9. It was discussed in a talk by Aaron Straup Cope, and worked on by people such as design-group BERG, who created the Little Printer. Broadly, it’s the about combining paper with the Internet. Or, as the Papercamp announcement put it:

“Whether that’s looking at material possibilities of paper itself, connecting paper to the internet and vice-versa with things like 2d-barcodes, RFIDs or exotic things like printing with conductive inks… it’s about the fact that paper hasn’t gone away in the digital age – it’s become more useful, more abundant and in some cases gone and got itself superpowers”

Even in the internet, paper has its uses. Paper maps can be passed around and drawn on. I can give a stranger a print-out to look at, but might not want to pass them my phone. Paper is for scribbling and sharing. At festivals, everyone still has small paper timetables dangling on lanyards – you don’t have to worry about running out of battery between stages. There’s also a charm to hand-drawn maps that online services can’t compete with. You can tear paper, scribble on it, glue it over offensive adverts, post it, use it to support a wobbly table-leg.

One of my favourite ideas was Warren Ellis’ suggestion of an email-to-print service for “a podcast that spits out paper“, inspired by Schulze & Webb’s 2006 “social letterbox.”. Ellis said it should not be referred to as a papercast, despite that  being an excellent name. Yes, in some ways this is reinventing the fax machine, but it’s an interesting reinvention.

Most applications involve printing, but not all. There is potential for photography (and the use of printing terminals) and cardboard (google and muji  binoculars). Improvements in OCR and image recognition promise a flow of information from objects back into the internet

There was even a Papercamp, in January 2009, which was liveblogged by Jeremy Keith. This was a day to “talk about, fiddle with, make and explore what’s possible with paper based on a blog post”, and “hacking paper and its new possibilities”. It was based around the barcamp format, where slots are available for the attendees to fill out the schedule. Some interesting things turned up:

“Nick O’Leary is talking about graphs. He wants to represent them with paper rather than simply on paper. He came up with some code that generates an image including lines showing where to fold and cut. Print it out, cut it and fold it and voila!, 3D graphs. He holds up an example. It’s beautiful. He wants to make a pop-up book of statistics.”

and then there is what Keith describes as “the missing piece of the papernet puzzle: edibility. [Sawa Tanaka] has made edible prints on rice paper: English breakfast, fish’n’chips, soba ….”

There is so much that can be done – such as using print-on-demand services to create one-off notebooks. Or even gamebooks, like the old I-spy book. Using software to help produce decorated origami (something I’ve used to hide stories inside origami designs). Creating simple A7 booklets. Printing off day-planners before heading out to work. Several people have used receipt-printers (one similar project being Tom Armitage and Jeff Noon’s collaboration, The Literary Operator). Some were influenced by Moleskine’s city guides, wondering about ephemeral tourist guides. You could even combine GPS and paper in dead letter drops.

The Internet can bring paper alive.

25/3 – Some further suggestions from @6loss: “digital pens, ozobots, conductive ink.”

Don’t you have time to read?

I wrote this post a few years ago and never published it. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the point of novels and fiction. We’ve had about three ‘revivals’ of the short story announced in the press since I wrote it, but short stories are still not loved by publishers. I also suspect people are reading fewer novels now than when it was written – although they may be buying more, given the number of cheap paperbacks and Kindle offers that are available. Meanwhile, I now rarely read novels, finding myself more interested in creative non-fiction. Reality Hunger.

BS Johnson’s novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is very short. It stretches the definition of novel, coming in at about 20,000 words. Johnson pre-empted this with a meta-fictional intervention from the eponymous Christie Malry:

“…who wants long novels anyway? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or the cinema in only one evening? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act: it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions that no longer exist”

My reaction to long novels these days is to feel affronted: who does this writer think they are? I don’t know how anyone has time to read long novels. The average UK work week is 41.4 hours. Add in time to sleep, cook, read weblog posts, update twitter and facebook, and play video games, it’s a wonder anyone reads novels. Considering that most people read 2 words per second, an average-sized 80,000 word novel takes about 11 hours. How long does it take most people to read an epic?

The time available to read is also dissected into smaller gaps, periods of dead time when it’s hard to do other things: flights, waiting rooms or the daily commute. I always wondered why people didn’t turn to short stories – after all, a half-hour commute is long enough to read a decent short story. Or you could get stuck into a couple of poems, and gaze out of the window while digesting them. Why do people stick with novels?

I found one possible answer in a round-table discussion, where Ra Page claimed “People read novels on the bus because it’s their little bit of down time, and they want to link those moments up and bring them together to make a longer experience.” If Ra Page is correct, people want novels to give a their day-to-day life a structure.

This was something else that obsessed BS Johnson. Jonathan Coe’s book on Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, quotes a letter in which he says, discussing his films, “I would like to make an audience think about WHY they demand a story from films but not from life.” We burrow into novels to find something lacking from our routine.

A major problem with restricting reading to these dead moments is that such moments are suited for certain types of novels: novels you can fall asleep to without losing the plot; or novels that can be followed despite the annoying conversations around you. Such books need to be simple, so they can be interrupted at any point and resumed with little effort. And if that’s true, then great novels are something that can only be enjoyed by students, the sick and the under-employed.

Maybe the novel is no longer suitable for the world we live in. I still enjoy reading, when I have time, but I’m aware that I might be one of the last generations to see novels as an essential part of life. New technologies are eroding the audience for the novel. They have to compete with movies and video games and mobile internet technologies – and I’d be hard pressed to state that novels are an intrinsically worthier method of entertainment than computer games or social networking.

Another lost Brighton bookshop

In May 2010 I wrote a post about the Lost Bookshops of Brighton. Visiting Brighton’s bookshops in the 1990s was one of the things that made me fall in love with this town. Over the last 20 years, most of the country’s second hand bookshops have closed, caught between Amazon and a surge in charity shops (who avoid many of the overheads of second-hand bookshops). I miss hunting for second hand books, something I used to spend whole afternoons doing.

Another Brighton bookshop is about to be lost. PS Brighton is covered in 50% discount posters, a ‘To Let’ sign hanging above it. This was an excellent source for cult novels, rock biographies and art books. It’s going to be replaced by another coffee shop.

 

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The day after taking the photograph above, I walked down Trafalgar Street. The shop at the corner of Over Street, most recently a bike shop is being refitted. A ghost-sign has emerged from one of the shop’s former incarnations as the Trafalgar Bookshop. I can no longer remember the specific layout of this place, only that it was one of the places I enjoyed hunting.

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