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.

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

The Forgotten Sport of Piano Smashing

I’m fascinated by how untrustworthy memory can be. For example, Oliver Burkeman wrote recently about verbal overshadowing, where written descriptions affect visual memories. And then there is the research into induced false memories, where researchers persuaded people they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disney World.

(John Higgs spoke about his recently at the Latitude Festival. His recent book Watling Street describes vivid memories of having a CJ Stone book on his shelves while living in Manchester, even though the book came out after he moved away)

Even more interesting are memories of things that happened that now seem false. Maybe everyone has memories of childhood that seem incredible to look back on.

In the 1980s, entertainment was very different. I can remember how exciting it seemed when a fourth TV channel arrived (an event described in the diaries of Adrian Mole). It seems barbaric that TV stations used to turn off overnight: as an insomniac teenager, I made do with whatever late night TV was on, usually a single channel. Always-on internet is eradicating boredom, and it’s hard to believe things like climbing the Old Man of Hoy were prime-time shows.

The village fete was the site of various strange entertainments. You used to pay to throw wooden blocks at stands of crockery. And then there was the spectator sport of piano smashing. The idea was to take hammers to a piano and break it into small enough pieces to pass through a letterbox. There was even a Guinness World Record, the best time being 1 minute 34 seconds. You can check out a video of this on Youtube (commentator “It’s like they’re cutting down a tree – a piano tree!):

I guess the piano smashing came about because of a surplus of instruments as TV became more popular. The ‘bomb party’ blog has a history of piano smashing. As well as sporting examples, it has musical and artistic ones. It quotes Bill Drummond from the KLF describing another reason why pianos fell out of favour:

“Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

I guess as I grow older, and technology infiltrates more parts of daily life, the 1980s will begin to seem more and more like another world.

My Favourite Books of 2016 – and the best so far this year

This post is incredibly late. I found it lying lost in my drafts folder, and it seems a shame not to post it. So: last year I read 82 books, and mostly managed to avoid bad ones. Picking out a arbitrary best eight:

  1. Command and Control / Eric Schlosser
  2. Dietland / Sarai Walker
  3. Do it for your Mum / Roy Wilkinson
  4. Electric dreams / Tom Lean
  5. The Last Days Of Jack Sparks / Jason Arnopp
  6. Seveneves / Neal Stephenson
  7. A Trojan Feast / Joshua Cutchin
  8. The Way we die now / Seamus O’Mahony

As far as I remember, Seveneves gave me worse nightmares than any book I’ve read in life. Not bad for a book that’s horror rather than sci-fi. I read a lot of apocalyptic fiction, but the image of the moon exploding and destroying the earth with debris was incredibly potent.

When I first started blogging, about 15 years ago, I decided that I shouldn’t write negative things. This is a good rule and one I’ve rarely broken. But… I read two truly terrible books by once-great authors: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels and Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk. It wasn’t that these were bad books – I’d have just ignored them otherwise. I was shocked by mediocre work from such great talents.

So far in 2017 I’ve read 45 books, although I expect to catch up on 2016 after my Autumn holiday (I have a load of Le Carre books waiting on my Kindle). Likely best-of-the-years include Chalk by Paul Cornell, John Higgs’s stunning Watling Street (a review is currently in my drafts folder), and I hate the internet. But I’m desperate for a few more mindblowing ones. Recommendations welcome!

The October Ritual

At the start of the year, one of my favourite bands in the world, The Indelicates, got in touch about collaborating on a launch event for their album Juniverbrecher. We decided the best way to do this was with a magic ritual to end Brexit.

There’s a clear precedent for this sort of thing. In 1967, the Yippies set up a ritual to levitate the Pentagon in protest at the Vietnam war. Even if you’ve not heard of this event, you’ll have seen some of the photos from it, when hippies placed flowers in the soldiers gun-barrels. There are some great stories about the day, with Arthur magazine’s novella sized account being a great place to start.

One of the best parts of running this event is helping to put the bill together. One of the support acts will be John Higgs, whose book Watling Street explores what it means to be British. I now know John in person, but I read his first book, a biography of Timothy Leary back in 2010, when Scott Pack gave me a review copy. Each book since has been increasingly strange and powerful. Watling Street draws together a lot of strange threads, and talks about national identity as something positive and inclusive. It’s a great book and each time I’ve seen John talk about it has been enthralling. We will be announcing additional support in the coming weeks.

Aleister Crowley defined magick as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” – although, in this case, we’re going against the supposed will of the people. We’re really excited to welcome ritual magician Cat Vincent to carry out the binding and exorcism that will defeat Brexit. I first met Cat at John Reppion’s Spirits of Place event, where he gave a talk about, among other things, his 2014 working which is still leading to strange and wonderful ripples – the next one being September’s Festival 23 event in Brighton, “Is a hotdog a sandwich?”

The album itself is fantastic. The previous Indelicates record, Elevator Music was more optimistic – this is a bit more like 2013’s Diseases of England. I might use the word ‘hauntology’ to describe this new record, if that word hadn’t be banned. Besides which, this album has some great tunes, which a lot of hauntological music doesn’t bother with. It focusses on the darker things that led up to Brexit, a Britain where the figures of Mr. Punch and Jimmy Saville lurk in the boiler room. My favourite track, Everything English, contains the lyric “We told you so”. Given the scathing predictions in earlier Indelicates records, it’s amazing they didn’t use that for the title of the record; and all of the lyrics.

There might have been ways to deliver a great Brexit but what we’ve been given is a fiasco. I’ve read Daniel Hannan, I’ve tried to understand what we are getting out of this, and I am baffled. A mixture of pride, spite and arrogance is about to send us rushing into a massive, complex restructuring of our society. It’s like a GCSE student turning up to perform heart surgery. It’s a mess, a fiasco, and we’re about to be isolated and  trapped and on an island full of ghosts.

Unless… something wonderful and magical happens to stop this. If you want to see our attempt, tickets are available now…