Life on Plague Island (Day 321)

As Britain lurched past 100,000 deaths last week, I saw people post an interview with Jacinda Ardern on Twitter, where she talks about making her plan for coronavirus. What’s interesting about that is not her particular approach; shutting down the UK completely would have been hard to justify in early 2020. But Ardern is clear about her aims. Cutting off a country looked drastic, but now I watch with envy as New Zealand has music festivals. Their economy has still taken a hit, but normal life is recovering.

Meanwhile, Britain’s government tries to balance lockdown and the economy, and fails at both. There has been talk about quarantine hotels recently. The policy was trailed in the papers for days before a half-hearted implementation was finally announced. I’m not even sure that these hotels have yet opened. They don’t cover people whose destination is hidden by transfers.

The thing that surprises me is how little anger there is against the government. The polls suggest a solid base of 40% support, which seems ludicrous given the number of mis-steps that have been made. Without acknowledging how weak the response has been so far, there is no way to try a new approach. I find myself waiting for fury; instead, support rallies on the government’s vaccination success. Buoyed by this support, the government has announced a date for reopening schools rather than an actual plan, with the promise that pubs will follow within two months. The newspapers include reference to “Boris” wanting to reunite families at Easter.

It’s no wonder that some people are confused about the difference between guidance, laws, leaks and ministerial statements. Last week, a friend got angry with me recently for not wearing a mask outdoors as a matter of course. I was defensive, and I part of that that is fear. If it’s not safe to be outdoors unmasked, then a lot of things the government implies are safe are actually incredibly dangerous.

The vaccine programme is all we have, and it’s not certain that it will solve Britain’s coronavirus crisis. Countries such as Japan, Thailand, New Zealand and even China seem to have been far more successful than we have been, yet there is no real sense of learning lessons from them.

Obviously, nobody cares all that much about my views on politics. This blog post simply records my feelings of quiet, frustration at the situation we are in. A few months ago, I was hoping we would be out of lockdown by Easter. Now, I’m not even sure we will be out of lockdown by June.

Back in March 2020, the Prime Minister claimed we would turn the tide on coronavirus in 12 weeks.

Bodge Issue 1

Last weekend (on Saturday 23rd, of course), the Liverpool Arts Lab released the first issue of their new zine, Bodge. You can download a free PDF or order a physical copy. The Arts lab are planning 12 issues, on the 23rd of each month through 2021, and it also includes contributions from some of the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrims.

I’m using my recurring page to talk about ley-lines, which is an excuse to bury myself in books about old stones and earth mysteries. I’m still not 100% sure what I think about the topic, but it’s fun to figure it out. And, as the year moves on and we can actually leave the house, I hope to do a few experiments.

I’ve also been working to send out the physical copies, which arrived earlier on Monday. While the zine is available for free, there is something special about receiving culture as a physical object. I think this is particularly great while we are all physically isolated from each other.

Bodge collects together a loose community of people, some I know well, and many I wish I knew better. There is art, poetry, short essays and even a problem page,. It documents a nexus of interests, as well as looking good, and I can’t wait to see what emerges over the year.

The Cult of the Seagull

Back in February 2020, walking to Hove station for my commuter train, a bird dropped a bone on my head. The image feels almost too rich with symbolism, given what was coming. And, of course, this bird of ill-omen was a seagull.

Brighton belongs to the seagulls. Whenever rubbish goes uncollected, they scatter litter on the streets. They trash the town like the worst stag night tourists. They scream and shout, waking people in the mornings. Netting doesn’t keep them out. They’ll attack people for chips, making it dangerous to eat in the open.

(There is a shop at the end of my road, which has fruit and veg in stands outside. I’ve always wondered how it copes with the local seagulls. So, I asked the shopkeeper one Sunday. Apparently, the seagulls are no trouble in the winter, but in the summer they can be. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are among their favourites, but more than anything else they love peaches.)

Brighton’s seagulls are vicious. I’ve had them stalk me down the street to have a go at stealing a baguette. Another landed at a table to grab the sandwich from a plate waiting opposite. They’re vicious thieving bastards.

They seem to know they cannot legally be killed. Some of them must suppose they are a holy thing, a beloved and adored bird. They will assume that we build houses as places where they can perch and nest, that we serve them our rubbish. We like to pretend that Brighton is a human town, but really it belongs to the seagulls.

They are the Bullingdon Birds, like little Tories, causing noise and mess, not caring for the smaller birds. They’d steal the food from hungry school children in a minute. I’ve seen them cruelly tear apart pigeons. Brighton is their city.

The Longest January (Day 310)

An abandoned Christmas tree in the park

This is the longest winter I’ve known. Tramping along the seafront had already become boring in April, after a few weeks of lockdown; now it’s much worse. If I could run, it would be better, but all I can do is pace. I’m sure it wasn’t always so dark at 7am – maybe it’s the coffee shops changing their hours, no longer catering for commuters. Everything seems slower, and I sometimes feel like the sea has frozen.

There was an excellent piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot, discussing the government’s lack of a clear plan. No ideas for lifting the lockdown have been published, no targets or objectives. All our attempts to protect the economy through lenient restrictions have failed, with the UK having the world’s worst death rates last week. There is no idea of how and when restrictions will be lifted (although I only hope we prioritise schools over pubs this time). Yesterday, over 1,6000 new deaths were announced. We seem to be stumbling through this, only now adding tests at airports or talking about quarantine hotels. Throughout this, our interventions have been half-hearted.

We’ve been promised that this is the beginning of the end, that the vaccine is going to save us. We seem to have gambled a great deal on one single intervention (and it’s starting to look like this lockdown will continue through Easter, whatever happens). I have no idea what happens if the vaccine doesn’t improve things sufficiently. Nobody talks much about long covid and the risks from that, the possibility of permanent injuries from hospitalisation. And all this, just to attempt opening up for Christmas.

A lot of people around me seem to be finding this lockdown harder than before, even though their situation is better than a lot of people (how on earth are families cooped up in tiny flats coping?). Talking to Tom on Monday, I told him how I’d found the first lockdown a positive experience. He corrected me, told me I had actually hated it. I guess the important thing is how we process these experiences and what we make of them.

A week or so back, I was walking with a friend around St Anne’s Well gardens. It was during the recent cold snap and the ground was icy. My friend slipped on a treacherous patch and fell to the ground. My first response was to step backwards rather than help. It seems as if distancing is becoming instinctual now.

At the Furry Convention

Google has an automated memory, which occasionally notifies me of things that happened. Five years ago yesterday, I was at a Furry Convention. It seems like another world.

Earlier yesterday, I had been reading a Kelly Link story. It was set at a large hotel which was simultaneously hosting a dentist’s convention and a gathering of superheroes. The Furry Convention in 2016 shared the hotel space with a girls volleyball tournament, and the teams would pose for photos with the furries.

Even without the pandemic, it will be a long time before I make a trip like this again. I spent new year in Goa, then flew east to California, with a stopover in Tokyo. I was there for a few hours and didn’t leave the airport. I have no idea why I didn’t arrange a longer stay and a stopover visa. I would have had enough time to have seen Shibuya crossing, to get lost in the city and find myself again.

I’ve heard so many great things about Tokyo. In 2008, the artist Momus gave a tour of ‘London as Tokyo’, imagining the South Bank was actually Japan and making up outrageous stories. Or, in Retromania, Simon Reynolds talks about bars which contain their own obscure cultural micro-scenes; now the web has made that universal.

An old friend of mine once visited Tokyo. She described the city as having no obvious ground level. I have not seen her in years. I heard she became a scything champion, and is now living in the countryside with two children. In 2008, this friend was engaged in an incredible project, only eating food produced within 100 miles of home. She struggled at it, but learned so much about the area she lived in.

All these stories about the past: I need to make sure that there are also good stories in my future.

Procedurally-Generated Novels

If I was suddenly given ‘fuck-you money’ – about £3 million would do it, I reckon – I would still write computer software. But rather than build financial systems, I’d work on procedurally-generated literature. Enterprise software is interesting, but it doesn’t have the philosophical dimension of trying to make a computer write like a person.

I’ve toyed with this a little through the Mechapoet, which never quite managed to be entertaining enough (we did beat one human poet in a slam, but only one). After an evening in the The Basketmakers with Shardcore, I realised I didn’t have the time or patience to put in the work needed for something more impressive.

I made a few other experiments. One was around haiku. These poems are so simple and often shorn of context, so there is a decent chance of beating human writers. All I’d need is the right data set, and a way of judging the new ones. Applying a fitness function via the web was going to be a great deal of work, and I already had a lot of work in my life. But I occasionally day-dream about procedurally-generated literature.

Writing entire novels by computer is a long way off. There have been early attempts, and these tend to be avant-garde rather than containing the sustained narrative we want from novels. There is a website that compares human and computer poetry, and it tags some human poets as being particularly “computer-like”. These poems are fairly ‘experimental’ and it is these fringes that are most open to the computer.

The first book that claimed to be written by a computer was The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, written in 1984 using a program called RACTER. It’s not particularly readable, and is remarkable more for how it was written than the contents.

Another early computer-generated book is Nick Monfort’s World Clock, generated from 165 lines of python code, and is inspired by the work of Oulippian Harry Mathews. The text is interesting, but relies on its structure. I could imagine having responded to this sort of text in an MA workshop class, but it doesn’t have the narrative drive one would expect from a novel.

There was a lovely 2014 Sabotage Reviews piece reviewing 9 computer generated-novels, which included a couple of particularly fascinating examples. One was “a desperate talking clock written by the people of Twitter”, using entries mentioning each specific time. Another “creates a harrowing story from tweets mentioning National Novel Writing Month.

The writer of this piece, Harry Giles, found an interesting angle on generated literature. He suggested that it is part “of the Oulipian tradition of writing from constraint: if you make such-and-such a ruleset, what kind of writing might happen?” He also compared the results to internet-inspired ‘anti-literature’ forms:

[the thing that generated texts are] closest to is the flattened affect and repetitions of alt-lit, with dashes of uncreative writing, flarf and other post-internet poetics. In other words: as humans increasingly write in dialogue with the internet and machine automations, machines are increasingly being written in dialogue with human literature

Probably the best example of generated text is the Magic Realism Bot. This produces some beautiful images, but it is basically a ‘madlibs’ style program, inserting a pool of words into specific places in pre-prepared sentences. On top of this, the creator prunes out the obvious misfires. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but relies heavily on human innovation and intervention.

(This intrusion of human editing has long been a part of generated texts, even before the computer. William Burroughs would spend hours making cut-ups, which involved slicing physical text with a knife and realigning it to see where new meaning emerged. Out of all this work he would pick the best pieces.)

I actually own one book written by a computer, a version of John Higgs’ recent book on the future, produced by Shardcore with the assistance of GPT-2. The grammar is pretty good, and it turns up some beautifully-weird phrases.

In Higgs’ The Future Starts Here, Shardcore describes the “big scene of bottists who are generating novels and books of poetry. They build these machines to write the stuff, but in the expectation that nobody’s going to read them. You read the first page and think ’I get the gist of this’, but you don’t go on, because it doesn’t make any sense… For it to be a book that you want to read, there’s a lot more to it…

Shardcore wrote a long blog post dealing how he worked through different techniques before using GPT-2 – “Markov chains produced the usual markov stuff”, and there were also failures from word-level and character-level Recurrent Neural Nets. But he hits the motherlode when GPT-2 created a weird description of the film The Breakfast Club. An entire book was subsequently produced, credited to Algohiggs.

Computer-generated texts are going to become more common. There is even a computer generated textbook on Amazon, Lithium-Ion Batteries: A Machine-Generated Summary of Current Research Hardcover, which costs £30.

My favourite generated text (which I’ve taken almost a thousand words to get to!) is Emily Short’s Annals of the Parrigues. This is a travel guide to an imaginary country, produced from a number of out-of-copyright source texts. It’s hypnotic, with some clear glimpses of a literature.

Procedural generation works well in video games, where it can generate sufficiently-interesting content more easily than people can. In 1984’s Elite, it allowed the game to contain far more worlds that would otherwise fit in the limited memory and storage space of the time. It’s interesting to think about what sort of book might be generated by directly by software and read by people who didn’t care that it was computer-generated. If I had the time and the money, I’d love to find out. Since I don’t, I’ll carry on writing stories the easy way.

Book Review: Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees

What would an archaeologist in 2000-years-time think of Junction 3 of the M32 in the centre of Bristol?”

Gareth Rees recently published a new book, Unofficial Britain. This emerged from the website of the same name about “unusual perspectives on the landscape and culture of these strange isles”. Rather than look at the obvious places and landscapes, Unofficial Britain writes about marginal spaces.

Rees is fascinated by how folklore emerges, and modern things that are becoming folklore. There are chapters on pylons, motorways, hospitals. It’s about the sort of suburban landscape that I grew up in, and Rees makes it seem strange and exciting. The book is intended as a rebuke to the idea that folklore is under threat or disappearing, and looks for the “first flourishing signs” of new mythologies.

In an interview with Folk Horror Revival, Rees was asked to recommend three places in Britain to visit. His response:

That’s a hard one to answer. The main point of the book was to avoid obviously extreme or interesting locations and show that there is fascination in the everyday. We all live in places that are full of magic, weirdness and stories, if we can just dwell in them a while, look closely, and allow our imaginations to roam. So really I wouldn’t recommend visiting three specific places in the map – but instead visit three types of place near you and see what happens. I’d recommend: an underpass (ideally beneath a roundabout); an industrial estate; and a multi-storey car park. Go there, wander, poke about, and get the feel of the place. See what happens. You never know.

The best thing about this book is that it is full of trailheads to interesting things. This is the sort of book which, if you found it at an impressionable age, could divert you into a stranger life.

Book Review: David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’

I’m very fortunate that my current job adds meaning to my life. This is not true of many jobs, including some I’ve had in the past. David Graeber describes these as ‘bullshit jobs’, which he defines as “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”.

Graeber’s book shows the misery, waste and lost potential of these jobs, then applies his understanding of anthropology to looking at how this situation came to be, and why no-one does anything about it. ’The economy’ is made by people and through their participation and it could be constructed in a different way.

for some reason, we as a society have collectively decided it’s better to have millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings than freeing them to knit sweaters, play with their dogs, start a garage band, experiment with new recipes, or sit in cafés arguing about politics

When President Obama talked about the money that might be saved by an alternative healthcare system, he backed off from this, saying that it represented millions of jobs. He directly implied that it was important to keep these jobs, even while describing them as unnecessary.

This waste is everywhere, and contributes significantly to climate change through commuting and business travel. The arts are particularly wasteful, with bureaucracies consuming huge sums of money in managing grant proposals. A lottery might be more a effective means of producing great art.

Graeber also shows that, at the same time, jobs are eliminated as ‘unproductive’ simply because they do not produce profits. One example of this is the presence of staffed ticket offices on the underground. He points out that these roles were not just about selling tickets, but also provided a sort of ‘caring labour’, helping lost people and others in need.

One of the most satisfying jobs I’ve had was working as a hospital cleaner. It was hard and boring work, but it was good to know that I was doing something useful. As Graeber points out “Other jobs—ordinary cleaning, for example—are in no sense inherently degrading, but they can easily be made so”. One technique for this is through outsourcing. A present-day hospital cleaner is far less connected to the NHS than I was.

Graeber is cautious about discussing a solution to the problem, not wanting readers to get distracted from the book’s main argument by seeing it as simply an argument for a policy change. But he gently suggests that a Universal Basic Income might be a more humane and efficient way of managing the economy.

The Key to Twin Peaks

I’ve spent more time with Twin Peaks than any other art work. I’ve watched the series multiple times since its first release in 1991 and still find mysteries to explore. Last year, on a rainy walk, John Higgs recommended a 4 1/2 hour YouTube video about Twin Peaks that would explain the show. I was sceptical, but gave it a try.

The video begins with a spoiler warning, both for those who have never seen the show and those who know it well. It promises a unifying theory that explains all of it, from the fish in the percolator to the white horse. And it comes pretty close.

Over almost 30 years, I’ve turned this series round in my head, trying to understand it. Even with the help of these YouTube videos, I expect to be wrestling with it for decades longer. The most remarkable thing about this video is not that the theory is correct, but that it is possible someone could build a complete theory around such a complicated and symbolic show.

(From this point in my post, spoiler warnings are in effect, both for Twin Peaks and the video).

The idea of Twin Peaks as a critique on TV is obvious, from the soap-within-a-soap of Invitation to Love to Sam and Tracey watching “The Box” in Season 3. The play with Pittsburgher David Lynch, director of Twin Peaks, playing the FBI director from Pittsburgh was so foregrounded that I actually missed it. What this video did was to take this as an overarching principle and demonstrates how many things could be tied back into it.

Some of the claims and theories made sense. Throughout the show, Lynch is uncomfortable with the idea of a vicious sexual murder driving a mystery to titillate audiences who are watching over a TV dinner. While Lynch doesn’t always handle Laura Palmer’s role gracefully, he is aware of the issues (even as the show sometimes crassly mishandles gender and race).

One of the most interesting things is how Lynch fights against closure. During season three I was troubled by how mundane the explanations about Judy/Jowday were. Lynch kept trying to wrong-foot the viewer throughout the series, and Judy was part of this. That entity was an embodiment of explanation: removing all the mystery from Twin Peaks would destroy it.

I think that the character of Freddie Sykes, with his green glove, is another embodiment of frustration with closure. Sykes is ludicrous and out-of-sorts with the rest of the show’s tone, his origin story as ridiculous as that of any Jack Kirby superhero. And he finally defeats Bob by punching him into non-existence. This resolution has occurred several times in the Marvel Cinematic Universes. It’s not very interesting.

In that final confrontation scene with Bob, Lynch gives the fans what they think they want: Cooper sweeping in to the rescue. He has his reunion with the sheriff’s department (with Frank standing in for his brother, Sheriff Harry S. Truman). And Lynch shows us how hollow that resolution is.

The video was powerful, but also inspiring – about how a work of art could be intricate enough to support this level of interpretation without falling apart. But it didn’t provide me with the triumphant closure it warned me against.

Back when I was seventeen, I dreamed about meeting David Lynch. I asked him, “Is Bob an angel?”, and he told me I’d grasped the key to the show. Even as this video tries to explain anything, my personal interpretations (“unverified personal gnosis”) still stand. I suspect I’ll be turning over the mysteries of Twin Peaks for the rest of my life.

Imaginary Spaces (Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi)

A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. Tides flow in the lower levels where he fishes for food; to the east, some of the halls have collapsed. Sometimes, another man comes to visit.

Susanna Clarke’s novel Piranesi describes a man exploring a strange world. He makes his own calendar, and tracks his life through journals. This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.

Piranesi made me think of other books set in infinite buildings, such as the Library of Babel, or Ballard’s The Enormous Space. And, of course, House of Leaves, since Piranesi describes his building as ‘the House’. The TARDIS is another reference, and the book includes a subtle reference to the episode Blink. It also refers to Dunne’s Experiment with Time which just keeps turning up.

(Having said that, I totally missed the references of the name Piranesi, and it was only after reading that I went to google and learned about the Italian artist’s Imaginary Prisons).

While the book is not about memory palaces, it made me think about such uses of imaginary space. I’ve been reading about Ley lines again, thinking about the way space can be used to remember and to tell stories. Someone once told me about Fulcanelli’s book The Mystery of the Cathedrals, which claims that France’s great cathedrals are actually alchemy textbooks.

On the final day of the CERN pilgrimage, the Liverpool Arts Lab led a tour of Liverpool along the shore Lake Zurich. One place was mapped on another. I sometimes think about measuring out the distances between Varanasi’s ghats, and placing them along Brighton’s seafront. That way, I can take my daily quarantine strolls in an entirely different place.