Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)

The Money-Burner’s Tale

Jon Harris, aka the Money-Burner, recently published an account of the Cerne2CERN pilgrimage, Barefoot in Bollingen. It’s a great essay, threading together a number of themes.

The pilgrimage was a strange and significant event for me, and one I don’t yet understand; but I’m OK with taking a long time to absorb what happened. Those few days were like nothing I’ve done before. I’m taking my time to interpret and understand the events, and seeing the writings and responses from other pilgrims is a part of this.

One of the many aims of the pilgrimage was as an action to eliminate ‘story as we know it‘, an idea raised in Daisy Campbell’s show Pigspurt’s Daughter. But there were a lot of other aims, and whole networks of meanings and correspondences. To quote Jon quoting Daisy quoting Bill Drummond, ‘As to why, if we knew why, we wouldn’t be doing it’.

Jon’s essay explains why we went barefoot in the final part of the journey to Jung’s garden; it was related to the procession of the Crown of Thorns into Paris. The essay also talks a lot about ritual, something I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly in relation to the Loops performance. I was particularly taken by the idea that ritual should be about more than producing an effect:

In my own Rituals I’ve found that the more I can let go of the idea that a Ritual has a function — that it is for something — the more powerful it is. What I mean by ‘powerful’ is that it sits more solidly on its own fixed point and so exerts a greater pull on the vortex of synchronicities that surround it. It pulls them into being.

There are other things I love about the essay. I love the glimpses of the pilgrimage’s logistics –  as someone who’s worked as a project manager, I learned a lot from seeing Jon and Daisy work. I have no doubt that those lessons will emerge in upcoming IT projects. But, swerving from the essay to talking  about myself, the piece also made me rethink my writing.

Story tends to be focused on in a lot of writing, even in non-fiction works. The first creative writing course I did focused on literary fiction and we were taught to fold everything into a plot. But story can be unsatisfying – particularly when all of it is based around a limited range of models. For example, Save the Cat dictated the plot of many recent Hollywood films. Jon’s piece made me realise that the writing I’ve loved most over the past few years is not about telling a story as such. Indeed, while it is ‘about’ the pilgrimage, that’s more in the sense of ‘writing around’ than telling its story.

Reading this particular essay made me realise how much I love writing that builds networks of ideas. These sorts of symbolic connections seem to particularly emerge in writing informed by magic, manufacturing (revealing?) meaning in the connections. As specific examples, I’m thinking of John Higgs’ book on the KLF,Cosmic Trigger or Promethea. There are more interesting ways of writing than telling stories.

The 2006 ‘Rough Guide’ to Blogging

Last week I caught up with an old friend who gave me two wonderful presents. The first of these was a 2006 book about blogging:

There is something amazing about returning to old books on a subject, particularly ones about the Internet. Looking at the predictions and expectations is fascinating; what excited people before hindsight corrected them?

When the concept of podcasting is introduced, the book explains: “technically speaking, a Podcast is an audioblog delivered using RSS”. And I’ve learned that the word blog (2004 Merriam-Webster word of the year) was coined by Pewter Merholz in 1999, who wrote “I’ve decided to pronounce the term ‘Weblog’ as ‘wee-blog’, or blog for short

So far, my favourite prediction is from Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. I had to look up Weblogs Inc to be reminded who they were (one of the first blog networks, bought by AOL in 2005 for $25 million – which used to be a lot of money). Calacanis claimed:

nearly half of everyone who currently uses email will have a blog, and with blogs integrating themselves into the common routines of internet users, the percentage of blogs updated on a regular basis will rise

Which is a fascinating quote… my first response was to see it as ironic, given that the blogosphere has been trounced by twitter and facebook. And then it occurred to me that Calcanis was wrong through being too conservative. After all, facebook’s status updates are basically a blogging platform that is simple and easy to use – even if it has stripped away important elements like RSS and openness.

The book is full of reminders of lost things that were once important: technorati, blog rings; all the tools I’ve used over the years, like typepad, userland and even diaryland. I was reminded about how tricky comments were in the 00’s, with Haloscan popups being the easiest way to handle things (I still have an export of my Haloscan comments from 2001/2). I wrote about moblogging last year and there is a section on that. There are whole services that have disappeared, like audioblog-by-phone. Even at the time, I’d not realised there was a company set up to offer services related to sideblogs. There were just two pages on videoblogs, which have exploded with the rise of Youtube. I remember Beth being a pioneer for this, organising a vlogging event in Brighton in 2007.

It’s sometimes hard to see the roots of the current web, since things have flowered in such interesting ways. Technologies that once looked like dead-ends have become central. But, most of all, reading this book summons the optimism of that time. And we need that optimism as we work to rebuild the open web and move out of the walled gardens. This has happened before, when blogs took over from AOL and Compuserve and newsgroups. It can happen again.

Graham also gave me a book in the Burry Man. I remember hearing about this many years ago, in a talk by Doc Rowe at the Beyond the Border festival. Yesterday Doc Rowe was in the guardian, talking about Britain’s Weirdest Folk Rituals. ‘One year he had 23 whiskies before 2pm’

Famous for 15 People

Famous for 15 People is an ebook of my writing. It came out last year, but I’m only now getting around to officially launching it, with an event at Brighton’s Regency Town House on March 15th.

I’ve described Famous for 15 People as a ‘mixtape’ rather than a collection, mainly because it doesn’t have the overall theme that a collection would. Instead, it collects a range of different writing I’ve done over the years. It’s a very mixed book, but I love all of these pieces.

The book contains a number of short stories that I’ve performed over the years: such as meat a story about vegetarian kink; or We have always lived in the Slaughterhouse, about a family forced to hide from abuse. There’s a story about Kurt Cobain and the clown-horror Death of a Ronald. One of my favourite pieces to perform is about ventriloquism, A bad place to stick your hand.

There’s also a few examples of microfiction, which I count as being stories under 300 words, preferably under 200. I’ve done a lot of this over the years through my workshop event, Not For The Faint-hearted. I’d love to do a collection solely of microfiction, but in the meantime I’ve collected some published and unpublished pieces here including Vole, Pinnochio and The Saddest Dogs in the World.

Then are the horror stories. I’ve written before about my love of horror fiction. I’ve become much more comfortable with working in this genre over time. One of the pieces in the book, In the Night Supermarket, was part of a magazine competition to find exciting new horror writers; I wish I’d followed up on that more. Death of a Ronald certainly counts as horror, and there’s also Eat at Lovecraft’s – a story I love, but one that frustrates me as I’ve no idea where it came from. Some of the horror pieces comes from my project Lovecraft in Brighton, a weird book that adds a new story with each copy sold, something I hope will begin moving again soon.

There are also a couple of pieces of non-fiction, one of them a history of vindaloo, the other a commission I withdrew about Britpop, memory and nostalgia.

It’s a wide range of pieces, all tied together by an introduction from Rosy Carrick. I’m proud of each of these pieces and it’s good to finally give them a home.

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.


Vindaloo Stories



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.”