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.

A Month of Blogging

Writing I find easy. Putting it into the world is hard.

This month, I’ve been trying to publish a blog post every day. It’s not been easy to keep up the pace, particularly when I’ve been travelling. One post was finished on a train back from Gatwick; others have been written just before going to bed. But it was an useful experiment.

It’s not the first time I’ve attempted this. I tried it a couple of time this year, alongside two friends. These attempts didn’t go so well, with me flaking out very early in one of them, pissing one of the friends off. This time has definitely not been easy, and a few times I’ve relied on old posts I drafted without publishing (like I said, I find the writing bit easy). But I’ve finally succeeded.

I’ve felt some publication anxiety, but I’m still pretty happy with everything I’ve written. But posting a blog in 2017 feels a little archaic. There’s much less audience than there was, since most people are tied up on Facebook – and Facebook is not interested in pointing people towards personal sites.

Even with a small readership, this is also proving useful for writing on larger projects. Earlier this year, I tried to pull together a collection of pieces about commuting. It was a disaster, as I could not get it to cohere. Maybe the blogging will be a more successful way of doing this. I’ve got a lot of notes on Vindaloo, tourism and curry, which I’m slowly making into something larger. Writing short sections as blog posts forces me to finish passages, and gives me a better feel for the project than lots of notes.

Blogging is also a good way of processing the massive amount of information I take in. A few months back, I quoted Warren Ellis: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.” These posts put this information into a larger structure. It also acts as a brake on the amount of information I take in, giving a way to see how relevant it is.

I’m going to continue this for another month and see how this goes. It will be challenging as I’ll be away from my laptop for a few days; and the supply of almost-written draft posts is dwindling. I’m also going to look at building a little more audience.Blogs used to get fairly high google rankings, which brought a lot of random traffic. These days, that traffic is caught by other sites, and there are very few people using RSS readers. So the question becomes, is it possible to blog and get enough readers to make it worth doing?

Anyway: I wrote 30 posts in August (the 31st being this one). The others are listed below.

Orbific

Vindaloo Stories

Technical

Walkerpunk

Three Rules for Writing

Back in December, while walking the Downs Link with Kaylee, she asked me about my writing. During the conversation I explained that the biggest improvements in my writing came from three simple rules. She emailed me yesterday to ask me to remind her what they were. I thought I’d put them here.

Rule 1 – Never use adverbs

I first encountered this rule in Stephen King’s book On Writing. Any time an adverb is used, there’s a stronger single word that can be used. ‘Walked quickly’ can be replaced by ‘rushed’ – or ‘dashed’, or ‘scurried’; ‘said loudly’ can be replaced by ‘shouted’ – or ‘boomed’ or ‘yelled’.  Leaving out adverbs makes the writing tighter. English has a massive vocabulary available so losing the adverbs isn’t much of a constraint.

Rule 2 – Edit by reading aloud

Reading a text aloud slows you down enough to spot more mistakes. It’s also good for spotting when a sentence is too long. If you feel awkward or breathless as you read it, add a full stop somewhere. You’re also more likely to spot words that you’ve used too often (my greatest weakness).

Rule 3 – Write simple

Pick the simplest possible way of writing your sentences. Which isn’t to say to never use long words – if phosphorescence is the only word that will do, great – but you might be as well off with glow. Lovecraft is the classic example of this, someone who is a great writer despite their vocabulary, not because of it.


None of the above rules are revolutionary – they’re fairly common instructions. But they are all things I wish I’d known sooner.

There are also other ‘rules’ I follow: don’t use the passive voice; never start a sentence “There was/is”. I also like the rule Tim Clare often talks about where you put the most interesting part of a sentence at the end.

Having said that, there are lots of common rules which, I think, are applied too often. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a good rule for certain types of voice, but it’s not absolute. Someone like Vonnegut makes his books much more entertaining by telling the reader the story – you know, like an actual storyteller.

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.

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.

The MechaPoet experiment

mechapoet-hammer-tongue

The MechaPoet has now retired from performance. She currently sits on a chair in my flat beside the printer. I like to think they are friends; possibly, in time, something more.

MechaPoet was an attempt to produce a performance poetry robot. The idea came from discussions about creating real-person slash fiction with text generators. This led to the idea of MechaPoet, an attempt to relieve human beings from the drudgery of writing poetry. Me and Chris (my partner in the enterprise) have posted a few times about this (1, 2, 3 posts from me and one from Chris ), but I thought I’d do a quick overall post summarising things.

The technical side of MechaPoet was relatively unsophisticated, being based upon Markov Chains. The wikipedia page on this is not a particularly easy read. A simple way to explain them is that the Markov chains store every combination of two words in a text, and the word that follows them. This map of the text can then be used to generate plausible sequences of words that aren’t found in the original text. The best explanation of Markov Chains is by on-the-lambda.com, who illustrate the concept with the Smiths song, this Charming Man. They go on to show how Markov chains can be used to generate wine reviews.

dp

Obviously the project wasn’t just using Markov chains. I found a corpus of word pronunciations and used this to find generated phrases that ended on the same sound, and this could be used to generate couplets. The rhyming made the poems much more interesting. To quote Chris:

As someone who gets a bit sketchy and stressed out when I hear a lazy rhyme (part of the reason that I gave up rhyming altogether a couple of years ago), it might sound like quite a contrary request, but I think it gives a real shape to what MechaPoet comes out with, and makes the leap from the sort of Avant-Garde poetry that looks like an arbitrary list to the sort of semi-avant-garde-rhyming-doggerel that can be all too familiar to someone who goes to enough poetry nights. What was surprising was what eventually came out – sometimes, poems that are genuinely quite moving, and which contain some remarkable and surprising images.

The idea such an unimpressive way of generating the content was not simply laziness. I’d been thinking of something Matt Jones had said, about being ‘as smart as a puppy’: “Making smart things that don’t try to be too smart and fail and, indeed, by design, make endearing failures in their attempts to learn and improve. Like puppies.” The idea bring that it’s best not to try being too clever, but to cover for the shortcomings by being charming – hence the cardboard body of the robot.

A good example of simplicity working well is a bot written by Mark Humphrys which ‘passed’ the Turing test with “profanity, relentless aggression, prurient queries about the user, and implying that they were a liar when they responsed”. There’s also the classic story about the Eliza bot, where people felt their interactions with it were both significant and personal.

We had an interesting ‘uncanny valley‘ problem with the voice. The first version of the MechaPoet used the FreeTTS voices, which were good enough to tell that you were hearing poetry, but many of the words were garbled. After a show-and-tell at Brighton Java, Luke Whiting suggested using Google text-to-speech.  This is incredibly good, so much so that I had to make it sound imperfect to make the listener more sympathetic. (There was some research on this effect, and I’ll add a link when I find it again). The final version of the MechaPoet was a server-based poetry generator which was accessed by an Android phone providing the speech generation.

I look very young in this photograph

During the project I met up with zenbullets and shardcore, two local digital artists. I first met them after telling them their dedbullets collaboration was featured in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing. Zenbullets’ book Novelty Waves is worth a read, by the way, and some of shardcore’s talks are online – for example, What is it Like to Be a Bot?

Shardcore, quite rightly, pointed out many more sophisticated techniques I could use, but lack of time and focus meant I never explored them. It’s a great shame, as we were given some lovely ideas. As Shardcore writes about Markov Chains, “I’ve never been a huge fan of Markov chains for creating text, since the results can be somewhat haphazard and ungrammatical.”

There are still some fun projects involving the technique. King James Programming takes three texts as its source, moulding them into a new form. (“And it came to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise and confusion of ordinary software engineering or academic research.”) Or there is Garkov, which uses Markvo chains in an attempt to produce plausible Garfield strips.

I also wrote The MechaPoet in Java, which is a lousy language for hacking together prototypes, particularly for text manipulation – but when I wanted to produce the robot, I didn’t want to fiddle about learning Groovy, or sharpening my blunted Python skills.

MechaPoet was intended as a performance poet. She was involved in Chris’s award-winning Brighton Fringe show, as well as an appearance at the Hammer and Tongue night which, I think, baffled people more than it entertained. We never quite managed the trick of making MechaPoet entertaining rather than interesting.

(MechaPoet was a she, by the way. It’s amazing how many people assumed that a robot/performance poet must be a ‘he’. Hopefully, we weren’t sanctimonious in that, but if you’re going to gender a spray-painted cardboard box with a phone inside…)

I do want to return to the MechaPoet project at some point. I started work on a haiku generator (referring to haiku as the 5-7-5 version of the form). I’m convinced that the constrained, gnomic style of these haiku means it would be easy for a computer to create poetry far superior to what humans could do. My eventual plan is to use some sort of Bayesian filtering to pick good haiku. So far, I’ve got no further than a rather scrappy github repo. But it does at least have some unit tests.

I must also recommend Bot or not, which allows users to guess whether a piece of poetry is wtritten by a human or a computer. Apparently Blake’s The Fly is the most human-like poem written by a human being.

An experiment in publishing

Along with the book of short stories, I’ve also been working on something longer: Lovecraft in Brighton. This is a ‘novella in fragments’, telling the story of a man haunted by the ghost of HP Lovecraft. It’s also something of an experiment, with the work-in-progress being sent out – each time someone buys a copy, a new story is added and the work so far sent by post – with a final version being sent to everyone at the end.

I love horror stories and sending them by post allows me to play with the intimacy of the genre: the loneliness and terror evoked by Lovecraft. The stories sent out will shift somewhat, because there are some stories I can only tell to people I know well; and others I can’t commit to open publication. So far, three people have read it and been very excited about it. There are more details and a link to buy copies on the Postal Press Lovecraft in Brighton page.

IMG_20150206_192615

The Return of Not for the Faint-Hearted

Photo by dade_p
The bucket was too small for Mickey’s head. But Minnie kept the ears (Photo by Dade_p from flickr CC)

Some years back now, Ellen de Vries and I started Not for the Faint-Hearted. It was intended as a one-off experimental writing workshop but was so much fun that it became a monthly event. It’s been on hiatus for a while but I brought it back last night for another session at the Skiff. We had 14 people, a mix of old faces and new, and it was as much fun as ever.

The aim of NFTFH is that we show the group a picture and they have three minutes to write a response – a story, poem or some dialogue. Then everyone has to read out something of what they’ve written. And you’re not allowed to apologise. What I like most is how funny and entertaining the pieces are – whether or not the people doing them consider themselves writers or not.

Next month’s event is on March 9th and tickets are now available. The pictures this month were:

  1. Airport Motel, 1956
  2. The TukTuk and the street food clients
  3. Time for supper everyone
  4. Waiter smoking, Paris
  5. Kansas Farmhouse
  6. A 1919 Sunday Supper
  7. WWPW-Brighton-19
  8. Voie ferree de cave
  9. The Secret History
  10. Containers
  11. Echo