Monthnotes: June 2024

June was a packed but tiring month. It started with the EMF Camp festival, included a visit to Blackpool, a holiday in Wales and many visitors. I came to the end of it worn out, not helped by poor sleep and hurting my back.

I think this is my favourite photo I’ve taken

Going to EMF Camp with Emma was great fun. I was a little shocked on arrival to learn that my talk was in the largest venue. I’m not sure how many people attended, but I had a decent audience in a 1,000-seat venue. I didn’t disgrace myself, and had some lovely conversations afterwards. The festival was a little overwhelming – it was my first since the pandemic started. I enjoyed catching up with a few old friends, including a visit to ‘the Brighton consultate’. EMF Camp 2024 will be remembered for an ‘orphan source’ incident, where some radioactive materials went missing onsite (now listed on wikipedia).

We had a full house to celebrate my birthday, which was lovely. The day itself was spent in Wales at a week-long gathering of about 30 people, with communal meals, estuary swimming and a Midsummer Ceilidh where everyone (including me) made monster masks. I got a carried away when one of the dances was announced as a competition to see who could dance longest, summoning my best inner-Florence-Pugh, but my partner and I came third.

My walking continues to be a maintenance dose, with a total of 372,184 steps, an average of 12,406. My longest day was my birthday, where I managed a total of 22,115 steps. I started a ‘transformation course’ at a local gym, figuring that I needed a short, sharp shock to help me back to fitness. The first cardio session destroyed me, and showed that my body is not as strong as I would like, given that it took over a week to recover.

I’m feeling a little funny about my writing. I’m approaching a full year of running the weekly substack. I’ve enjoyed it, but I also question the amount of energy that I put into my writing. What do I actually want from it? Part of this is wanting to try new forms as I feel I’m at the limit of what interests me about the things I’m currently writing. I tried a few experiments with Mastodon but they didn’t feel right. And an attempt to work on a new zine in Wales frustratingly came to nothing. But, I guess, the answer lies in writing more than thinking about writing. Stop doing the things that I’m not enjoying, focus on the ones that I do.

I do miss performing. I did a very small spoken word set on a staircase in Wales, where Rosy also performed some of her new poetry. I read five stories in three minutes. I can’t see any way to do this more often, other than crashing open mics – or doing the dreaded one man show. Or maybe this is connected to my frustrations with writing, and I need to think about how I can get more direct response for my work.

Work continues to be challenging, mostly in postive ways; I enjoy being a consultant rather than simply a programmer. We had a ‘miniconf’ at work during June, where I did a talk on computer-generated novels (another performance!) which seemed to go well. Our team had an in-person day in Leeds, and it was great to see my colleagues in real life. I ended the month with a trip to the JManc Unconference, which has me resolving to spend more time programming for fun.

The election started out dull and seems to have gone on too long – but the massive failure of Sunak to run a campaign has been amusing. I’ve already decided I won’t vote Labour due to their stance on nuclear weapons. But, given the polling for my constituency, that’s not a difficult decision, since the Tory candidate is unlikely to win. While a Labour victory seems assured, the national mood seems a long way from 1997. Britain feels tired out, and it looks like we’re a long way from anything improving.

Reading continues to be slow. I’ve still not finished Annie Jacobsen’s nuclear war book since I can manage only a small section at a time. RF Kuang’s Yellowface was an entertaining and dark satire. It was very much a book about writing, and contained some interesting reminders of how aiming for ‘success’ can leach away the joy that gets people into writing. Hanna Bervoets’s We Had to Remove this Post was a wonderful and disturbing novella about content moderation.

No new movies have blown me away this month, and the latest season of Dr Who underlined the usual rule that it works better with intimate dramas than the fate of the universe. The best film I saw was a rewatch of Three Kings, which I gave 5 stars.

My best friend’s daughter invited us to come with her and some friends to see Bikini Kill. Watching the band onstage, I realised how much Olympia punk had inspired me and what it has meant to me. After so many years in corporate life I’m hardly punk myself, but I’m still inspired by that passion.

I wrote a little last month about the joys of personal archives, like digital photo albums or these monthnotes. There was a great article in the New Yorker by David Owen, How to Live Forever, which looks at how such things unlock memories. He quotes Marilu Henner “By really exploring your past, or remembering it in some way, you get a piece of your life back. Your life becomes longer and richer, and kind of stretches in the middle.” I’m into the fifth year of these monthnotes, and they are already valuable for that, particularly with the mushiness of pandemic memories.

Life comes in ebbs and flows and June has been intense. I’ve also been overwhelmed with to-do lists, and worry that they’ve distracted me from what I actually want and enjoy. Something to focus on in the coming month.

  • The release for the Indelicates’ new album Avenue QAnon comes closer with the new single, 4CHAN (THERE’S SOMETHING GOING DOWN ON /POL/).
  • I’m delighted to see Chapelle Roan blowing up. I’ve been listening to her on Spotify for a while but it’s great to hear people being excited about her in the real world.
  • I’m increasingly frustrated with people on trains listening to music without headphones. Someone on Mastodon blamed this on the loss of headphone jacks.
  • I tried to get into Tiktok, but the magic algorithm doesn’t seem as wonderfl as promised, showing me mostly rollercoasters and footage of musician Flora Algera.
  • I loved listening to musician Buttress appearing on the Women Talking About Their Lives podcast.
  • Another good podcast episode was Why Didn’t Chris and Dan get into Berghain? on Search Engine, which went off in some interesting directions.
  • In Wales, someone did a close card-magic show and my mind is still blown from that.
  • I forgot about the video where Mike Skinner from the Streets talks about Peter Mandelson’s comeback.
Muffy found me a copy of the Godzilla children’s book for my birthday!

Dennis Pennis

When I was young, I loved the Dennis Pennis interviews. Pennis was a character played by Paul Kaye who attended celebrity events and asked the stars unexpected, often insulting questions. This shattered the illusion of celebrity a little, showing how staged a lot of the other interviews were, and I found it fascinating.

I saw Pennis live once, when he was introducing the Prodigy at Glastonbury. When the band’s equipment failed, plunging the gig into silence, Pennis was sent on stage to entertain the crowd, which he did by singing Hebrew songs.

Notoriously, while Steve Martin was in the midst of a career slump, Pennis asked “How come you’re not funny any more”. Martin was asked about this in a recent Guardian interview:

Before I go, however, I mention that the line has come back to haunt Kaye: he has said it is now the one thing strangers say to him in the street. Hearing this, Martin tips back his head and lets out an almighty laugh, warm and rich, yet curiously lacking in schadenfreude.

Why I Won’t Be Voting Labour

I won’t be voting for Labour in this year’s general election due to their stance on nuclear weapons.

In an article published in the Daily Mail, Keir Starmer reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to nuclear weapons saying that “he would be willing to press the button and use nuclear weapons to defend the UK – in stark contrast to Mr Corbyn“.

Nuclear weapons do not provide any means of defence. A system like Trident exists only to commit genocide as revenge when the policy of nuclear deterrence fails.

While nuclear war gets less attention since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are still over ten thousand warheads controlled by nine different nations, with the possibility of more countries gaining nuclear weapons in future. This is an increasingly unsafe situation, since even a ‘limited’ nuclear war could kill billions.

Annie Jacobsen’s recent book Nuclear War: A Scenario brought home to me how brutal and appalling a nuclear attack can be – as well as how easily responses can escalate. Given the number of near-misses our luck is going to run out eventually – particularly given that much of the nuclear infrastructure is based on the assumptions of the 1950s.

We need to deal with the danger these systems pose, and it needs to be done urgently. Instead, Labour are promoting Keir Starmer as eager to use nuclear weapons. I cannot support that.

Writer’s Notebook: Bored of paragraphs

I’m spending the week at a creative festival/retreat, which is a great opportunity to think about my writing a little.

A good place for thinking

I started the 2020s wanting to produce more writing in public. Since then I’ve published 7 zines of writing, and almost a year of a weekly substack. I enjoy short stories, and I’ve been more engaged with my writing than ever before. But I’m also feeling a frustration/excitement around form.

Back to my MA days and even before I’ve been fascinated with fragments. What is the smallest meaningful unit of fiction? With social media we are used to consuming narrative as interspersed streams, extracting narrative without convenient beginning, middles and ends. Paragraphs and chapters seem less interesting than self-contained pieces of text. Story is important, but it’s not everything. Our lives are composed of moments more than plots. And I think that fiction should reflect this.

There are antecedents – Kafka was a master of aphorism and fragment. Moorcock’s New Worlds stories of Jerry Cornelius were divided into tiny chapters with tabloid titles. Neil Gaiman described epics in single comic-books caption.

I’ve started playing a little with this on a Mastodon thread, and it’s harder than I expected. But it’s something I want to play with more.

In the past, I dreamed of a novel being published by a major house. I think that polluted my writing a little. Now I’m giving up on that, moving beyond it. I talked with Kate Boucher this week about the importance of having a practise, of art that satisfies ourselves as much or more than it satisfies an audience. Moving beyond having a market for a fitness function.

I want to play, to open up multiple threads without thinking of any possibly publication. To see what emerges.

Monthnotes: May 2024

Life still feels pretty good at the moment, but it also feels like hard work. Part of this is that I was committed to giving three talks between May 28th and June 12th. I’ve also continued to feel like I was a little behind with everything. May brought two bank holidays and neither felt particularly relaxing. However, it was lovely to have lots of guests in the house during the month, including several visitors for Rosy’s birthday.

Walking continues to be a maintenance dose, with my target at 8000 steps a day. The daily average was a mere 10,489 steps a day for a total of 325,147 over the month. The highest total was 17,150 from my friend Laurence coming to visit, and being given a tour of the town. I’ve actually committed to an exercise programme starting in June which will hopefully get some control over my fitness.

My weekly writing on the substack continues, and I was particularly happy with Skin Fever, a piece I wrote for Wednesday Writers. I also released a zine, Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove, which is basically my sixth South Downs Way collection. I’ve not done very much promotion of this – I sent out some free copies, but these haven’t received much response. I’m pleased with how the writing is going, compared to where I was a year ago, but needs a change in approach to build momentum. The substack has been great for getting me to publish stories, but I want to focus on larger works. I’ve an idea about experimenting with novella-sized fictions, which can be shared on the substack as works-in-progress.

The local elections were at the start of May, and felt like an imposition as I’m not feeling particularly engaged with party politics. At the end of the month, the government announced the general election for July 4th. I’ve long expected that this would be closer than the polls are claiming but the shoddy launch suggests this will not be the case. The chaotic Tory campaign has been entertaining so far.

I watched slightly fewer movies than usual in May, and a couple were re-watches. I went to the Blackpool IMAX to watch Furiosa, which was bitterly disappointing. The best thing I saw was And the King Said What a Fantastic Machine, a documentary about the history of film. This was delightfully sprawling and full of provocative footage, a little like an Adam Curtis documentary, but without the overarching narrative.

I also watched most of Castle Rock season 1 before running out of steam. It felt a little too much like a drama, but it was interesting to see Stephen King done as an aesthetic. Dinosaur was a charming BBC comedy series. I tried watching Baby Reindeer. Despite it being a true story, I couldn’t believe that the main character would not immediately spot how odd/dangerous Martha was. The new Doctor Who series is good, but I’m taking time to settle into having a new Doctor.

My reading was a little less disordered than it has been, and I finished six books. Joelle Taylor’s The Night Alphabet was a patchwork novel, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately one I’m glad I read. Kathleen Hanna’s biography Rebel Girl was inspiring, but harrowing in places. I also read part of Annie Jacobsen’s Nuclear War: A Scenario but I’ve been taking it slow as it is so terrifying. Stephen King’s new collection You Like it Darker had some excellent stories. King has reached the stage of his career where everything feels elegaic. While some of the stories were simplistic and unremarkable, there were others that were moving.

Rory Stewart’s account of his time in government, Politics on the Edge was interesting. Stewart was undoubtedly effective as a minister, but the reasonable tone he takes against the idiocy of everyone else makes you wonder if there’s sometimges another side of the story. His portrait of Boris Johnson’s time in the Foreign Office is withering and suggests that the current system isn’t working.

I’m continuing to enjoy music, but I’m missing the music papers and the context that they gave context to upcoming releases. Nowadays music simply appears on streaming and I miss the background that reviews and promotional interviews gave. Among this month’s new releases was a Ghostface Killer album, but a homophobic slur made me drop that pretty fast. I also went out to a live gig when Zheani came to Manchester.

I’ve been mostly logged out of Twitter and Bluesky, having tired of social media’s current form. I’ve been posting regularly to my mastodon account, where I probably have more monthly posts than readers. But its good to return to the original feeling of microblogging. I’m completly ignoring Threads and Facebook. I have an account on the latter as I need to contact some local groups, but I am not adding anyone who’s not based in the valley. Given Facebook continues to allow problematic content, I want to give it as little support as possible.

On Rosy’s birthday, sat on the sofa with her and Olive, we went though the years of photos on my phone. It was a great way to to review memories – nights out, festivals, walks, hangover selfies – seeing us grow over the space of minutes. I think it’s good to have these sorts of archives. These monthnotes are another example.

I’ve no idea why there was a pair of peacocks on the houses opposite

The first of my three talks was for work, about Java on Serverless. I put a lot of work into it but, when it was delivered, it felt light and inconsequential. It could probably have had more technical details. Otherwise, work has been going a little better and I feel more on top of things. Consultancy means being busy on many simultaneous, unrelated projects, and I’m finding that doing tasks promptly is helping me to feel less swamped.

I finally got a decent photo of one of the local deer
  • Since Christmas, I’ve been wearing a beard, but decided to remove it this month.
  • I picked up a free sunflower from the station cafe at the start of the month, but it stubbornly refused to grow, despite me taking very great care of it.
  • Rosy and I discovered the Merlin app, and have been using it to identify local birds.
  • I made my first drive since January and discovered that I’d wrecked the car battery through driving so rarely.
  • On a drive later in the month, I had more car trouble. I am tiring of driving and wondering if train/taxi might be a cheaper combination for my rare journeys.
Rain coming in across the valley

Lists of advice on the internet can be trite, but I found this suggestion from Kevin Kelly incredibly moving: “When you think of someone easy to despise—a tyrant, a murderer, a torturer—don’t wish them harm. Wish that they welcome orphans into their home, and share their food with the hungry. Wish them goodness, and by this compassion you will increase your own happiness.” I love the idea of wishing for redemption rather than harm.

Some notes on AI & poetry

I’m due to give three talks in the next month and I’d been particularly anxious about one of these, on GenAI and poetry a month tomorrow. Last night I had a long intense dream which featured me worrying about the three talks, as well as a mysterious fourth. But on waking up I felt inspired about the whole thing, and have been gathering my thoughts.

  • I’ve started reading Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry, which looks at the form pre-world-wide-web, starting from 1959. It seems like an interesting complement to 50 Years of Text Adventures due to the digital archaeology involved and the overlapping time periods. Funkhouser places digital poetry in a wider framework – Oulippo, obviously, but he refers to examples of permutation poetry dating back to ancient times.
  • Obviously, much of poetry’s power comes from the link to human experience. Someone made the point that an AI-generated account of the Spanish Civil War could never work as well as Orwell’s first hand account. Would a computer-generated version of Howl ever work?
  • NaNoGenMo has been running since 2013, well before the emergence of LLMs. I found reading All the Minutes a genuinely moving experience, with its gestalt voice emerging from twitter posts. I think there are interesting ways we might use GenAI to generated such summarising texts.
  • I recently got hold of Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus, which imagines a word engine transforming text into new forms. It’s something that could easily be done using ChatGPT.
  • William Deresiewicz proposed that AI Will Never Rival Human Creativity through LLMs since these are designed to pick likely decisions. I know friends that preferred earlier text-to-image models since these were less accurate and produced more interesting outputs. But I can’t imagine it being too difficult to train/design an LLM to be more ‘creative’.
  • GenAI is an interesting tool for reappropriation of existing texts. I had an interesting session where I generated haiku from some of my favourite poems, with some interesting results.

A red wheelbarrow,
Glazed with rain beside white hens,
Much depends on this.

Monthnotes: April 2024

April was a weird month. I felt unsettled in work, and a little overwhelmed in the rest of my life. But I’ve also been happy to have a housemate for a large part of the time, with Rosy coming to stay. We also had a visit from Naomi Foyle, as well as a big group outing with my friends Dan and Jill to see Joelle Taylor reading from her new book. I also made a flying trip to London with work.

The Kickstarter for True Clown Stories hit its target, which is great news, meaning that the book will finally emerge after 14 years. Running a kickstarter was odd – after the initial launch it was hard to figure out what to do next, given how little reach social media now has. I’ve also continued writing the substack, which is going well. At times this month focus has been a struggle, but when I have settled down to actually write, it’s felt good. Sending the weekly emails is helping me to take writing more seriously.

After completing the 10-week step challenge, I dialled my daily target down to 10,000, which has felt a little tricky. Walking so much was easy in a sprawling city like Brighton, but it’s a little harder to find enough routes here to keep me interested. My daily average was 12,746, with a peak of merely 19,335. I’ve dropped my target to 8,000 steps for May.

It was another month where I struggled with reading, and only finished a couple of books. One of these was Scarlett Thomas’s excellent new novel The Sleepwalkers, which I read alongside my friend Jane. I started reading the Nadine Dorres book about the ‘plot’ against Boris Johnson. It wasn’t quite bad enough to be entertaining, but there’s an unsettling narrative here, with a dangerous conspiratorial view of politics. I can’t work out if this Dorres believes her own work, and she’s not quite a good enough writer to be able to tell if the spy novel flourishes are ironic.

I continue to struggle with backlogs, and it feels a little like trying to push down an air-bubble. For example, I catch up my email, but that sends more newsletters to the Kindle. Emails, text messages, RSS feeds, all constantly filling up. A few quiet weekends have helped me catch up properly, but I’m not sure how sustainable this is.

It’s the second month on my new project and work has been hard. Things are less structured than I am used to and I’ve not been enjoying the lack of clear goals. I have been enjoying working with typescript after almost 25 years of Java. Typescript feels less fussy and more responsive. I made a trip down to London to spend time with everyone on the project, which was lovely.

Another month where I watched a lot of movies. Ginger Snaps and Badlands were highlights, along with a rewatch of Bottoms. Monkey Man featured some impressive action sequences but relied on lazy, misogynistic tropes. I watched all of True Detective IV in about 24 hours, loving the acting and production values. The plot felt a little inconsequential but was redeemed by the last twenty minutes. I also watched the classic Dr Who story Pyramids of Mars, which was more entertaining than I expected.

I’ve had some quiet weekends, and one day, running errands in town on a Sunday, I realised that this is basically my personal paradise. I love living in the valley.

  • I left Facebook several years back, disgusted by their behaviour around Myanmar. But I’ve been forced to open an account there, as a lot of local tradespeople and events only appear there. I’m only adding people I know from up here.
  • My theory about my 25+ years of headaches being down to dehydration was proved correct as I forgot to drink one Friday afternoon and was knocked out with a massive headache the following day.

Writer’s Notebook: Commissioning for Attention

The 2009 post Getting Attention was an interesting description of how the Internet was then changing from people visiting sites to receiving a stream of content.

Most people using the web, especially in younger age-​groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader.

Getting Attention was about new ways of storytelling designed for the stream – text that could be discovered as fragments and still produce an interesting experience. Content that might be discovered out-of-order or as fragments.

[you should] design content that plays nicely with streams – content that can be interesting and enticing as a one-line text result in a search query, and that doesn’t mind being broken up into small pieces…

In some ways it’s exciting – every piece is its own little launch.

launch the project early, and often. Put out lots of little bits of content over time, and reward people who stick with you. Take the time to listen and work out why people are coming to the project, and more importantly, why they’re not. Make it easy for newcomers to pick up the story at any point, and to view content in any order if they want to.

15 years later, we are very much in that world of streams. Where people once used to visit a large number of sites to look for changes (or follow them with RSS feeds), now they visit a handful of sites which choose what to show them.

I wish I’d done more with writing for the stream back in 2009 when I was first thinking about it. I should have attempted some experiments. But, whenever you think you’ve missed about, it’s important to remember there are other boats still docked that are currently waiting. What will web-native writing look like in 2025?

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

I read John Salvatier’s post Reality Has a Surprising Amount of Detail some years back, and then couldn’t find it afterwards. It’s an amazing piece, which starts out looking at the subtle complexity of a ‘simple’ task, building a set of stairs. I found it again when it turned up on metafilter:

At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences… But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.

It’s a thought-provoking piece of writing. Metafilter also linked to a good related post, Why everything might have taken so long

Writer’s Notebook: The Doc Web

Elan Kiderman Ullendorff’s essay The Doc Web is a wonderful piece about how people find spaces to publish on the Internet:

Axiom 4: If you build a tool with the ability to publish, so help them god, people will publish

They will publish often, zealously, and without regard for the intended purpose of the tool. Yelp reviews will be co-opted to publish blog posts; Venmo payments will be co-opted to publish poems; spreadsheets will be co-opted to publish personal websites; maps will be co-opted to publish magazines.

They go on to list some of the things that have been published on Google docs and it’s a beautiful list:

I love this article for suggesting an world of underground publishing, with documents hidden in these large application. Many of them won’t be be picked up by the archiving sites, but the documents have a simple route to being published and shared.