New Zine of South Downs Way Stories

This month, I published a new zine of stories. This is the fourth in a set of flash fiction zines set along the South Downs Way. The stories are intended to work indepently, but contain links and recurring characters. Copies are available direct from me (drop me an email) or via my (new) etsy store.

This volume is slightly harsher than the other three. It had a long gestation period, which included the tough Winter 2021 lockdown. Some of the stories were influenced by reading Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, which examines the politics of the British landscape. The stories also take a weirder tack than the earlier ones, and I love embedding this strangeness in a landscape I know well.

I’ve now written four volumes of this collection (the other three are also available on etsy) and am now working on the fifth. It’s been a long time since parts three and four, but I am looking forward to finishing the next set of stories. Between producing these booklets, I’ve been thinking more about the formats and how to share them. I’m also getting more excited about building links between tiny independent stories.

Matrix Resurrections discussion (with spoilers)

Given the review headlines for Matrix 4, I didn’t expect much. Whatever, I loved the film from the start and kept waiting for the moment where it turned shit. It never did. As the credits played, I thought that might be one of the best films I’d seen in years.

Matrix 4 is not a perfect film. I can see why some people didn’t like it – particularly when it was so uninterested in topping the spectacle of the previous three movies. Instead, there was a thoughtful film about nostalgia/retro culture.

I can’t claim my responses as a cis-male are as interesting or important as those of trans fans, but I took a lot from it. For me, it was a film about growing older, and losing touch with the power and optimism of youth – how ‘they’ “made you believe their world was all you deserved”. This is particularly poignant, given how the themes of the first Matrix film have been co-opted in the years since.

Resurrections is a metafictional critique of the way in which storytelling has been harvested for ‘intellectual property’. This has produced films like Soul, where Disney promotes ideals that would be anathema to its corporate culture. Resurrections responds directly to how, as one review put it, “the future is increasingly viewed through the franchise lenses of the past, trapping fans in corporate-controlled dream worlds where their fandom is constantly rewarded with new product“. Corporate storytelling has much in common with the matrix.

I like that this reboot did not just go for nostalgia or outdoing the original (I mean, Star Wars 7 and 9 had fights in the literal ruins of the first trilogy). Undercutting the originals seemed a good way to go. Some additional, miscellaneous points:

Matrix 4 looked at the failures of the original trilogy and asked whether we could try again and do it better. By the end of the film, I thought maybe we could.

Using AI as a writing partner

I’ve been curious about GPT-3 as a creative tool since reading about Matt Webb’s experiments in 2020. GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3) is a language model that can create realistic text. The results are impressive, and it has even been used to write a Guardian editorial. In his experiments, Webb was confronted by phrases and ideas that did not exist before. The model produced original concepts such as the “The public bank of Britain”, and passages about “a three-mile wide black ring [that] was found in the ocean using sonar“.

The GPT-3 model is based upon millions of words of Internet content, and Webb has described elsewhere how “Reading GPT-3’s output, for me, feels like dowsing the collective unconscious. I’ve never seen anything so Jungian.

You can get a quick feel for GPT by playing with the Talk to Transformer page, which allows you to experiment with the basic trained model. There’s a good overview by the Verge, ‘OpenAI’s latest breakthrough is astonishingly powerful, but still fighting its flaws.’ Or, for a more whimsical experiment, Janelle Shae tried asking the model how many legs a horse has, concluding, “It’s grammatically correct, it’s confident, and it’s using a lot of the right vocabulary. But it’s also almost completely wrong. I’m sure I’ve had conversations like this at parties” The origins of the model means it’s also particularly well informed about topics such as Miley Cyrus and Harry Potter.

Sadly, I’ve got no chance of getting my hands on GPT-3 any time soon, since it is kept under tight control to stop it from being used for evil. But then I remembered that Shardcore had used the earlier GPT-2 model for his software-generated book length collaboration with John Higgs The Future Has Already Begun.

I realised that GPT-2 ought to be sophisticated enough to produce something worthwhile, so I decided to give the basic GPT-2 model some additional training based on my creative writing. I’ve read recommendations that you need 25MB-100MB of text, but I’m using 6MB of my writing as input (generated from the source documents using Apache Tika). I was then able to use this with a colab notebook build by Max Woolf to do the hard work.

(I’d not used colab notebooks before, but I am stunned at how they combine workbook and instructions, along with a free VM to run it all on. For more detail, check out Robin Sloan’s post The Slab and the Permacomputer. It’s amazing to see how lots of people’s hard work has combined, allowing me to play with sophisticated models without knowing much about python or machine learning).

The snippets of text generated are identifiably mine in a strange way, but there are flights of fancy that surprise me. A description of a character: “He was a man of his word, not a man of action.” A phrase: “Nobody felt safe watching another human being do something with their lives“. There was a whole mad fantasy about “a group of ‘dusk-blue crabs’ who ’went by the name of ‘the great snout’“. There are also moments where the model just goes on and on repeating “Wax tins! Wax tins! Wax tins!”. Weirdly enough there was also a passage about a John Higgs:

John Higgs, the English economist and writer, died on 26th October, 2001. He was 83 years old. He was happy to join the world scene, and for good reason. He and many of his ideas were burned at the stake for their uselessness.

The main issue I have is my training data, which is unbalanced in various ways – a few novel-length texts, lots of notes. As clever as machine learning is, it’s only as good as your inputs.

Writing with GPT-X is not simply about churning out text – this text does needs to be worked on (This is not ‘cheating’ – Burroughs used to screen his manual cut-ups, looking for poignant and interesting generated sections). There are also different ways to work with the system – Robin Sloan has described some of the techniques he has used, such as hiding prompts from the reader (but not the model) to produce effective writing. These techniques are all waiting to be explored.

Matt Webb has written in detail about his experience of this collaboration in GPT-3 is an idea machine:

Using GPT-3 is work, it’s not a one-shot automation like spellcheck or autocomplete. It’s an interactive, investigative process, and it’s down to the human user to interview GPT-3. There will be people who become expert at dowsing the A.I., just as there are people who are great at searching using Google or finding information in research libraries. I think the skill involved will be similar to being a good improv partner, that’s what it reminds me of.

GPT-3 is capable of novel ideas but it takes a human to identify the good ones. It’s not a replacement for creative imagination. In a 15 minute session with the A.I., I can usually generate one or two concepts, suitable for being worked up into a short story, or turned into a design brief for a product feature, or providing new perspectives in some analysis – it feels very much like a brainstorming workshop, or talking something through with a colleague or an editor.

GPT-X can produce text faster than anyone can read it, but as Sloan writes, “it’s clear that the best thing on the page, the thing that makes it glow, is the part supplied by a person“.

For me, the question is whether it can produce interesting art (particularly art that is not solely interesting because of its process). What I’ve seen so far is both spooky and exciting. Whether this is more than a cheap trick of text remains to be seen, but my initial explorations make me very excited about collaborating further with this model.

Monthnotes: December 2021

The year closed with the pandemic grinding on. My big news is that I’m now living in Halifax. This is quite a plot twist, and something I’d not imagined at the start of 2021. So far I like it. I’m living in a small wooded valley outside town and feel very comfortable – I love listening to the sound of rain on trees, or hearing the stream outside during the late watches of the night. I’ve not managed to explore much, or meet new people due to the pandemic, but am looking forward to exploring now Christmas is over.

I received my covid booster on Christmas Eve, and am now feeling more confident about coronavirus than I was. For the first two pandemic years, my aim was not to catch covid, particularly since I’d watch a friend suffer for months from long covid. Given the government’s policies, it looks like catching the virus is inevitable. However, even with omicron, it looks like vaccinations have severed the link between infection and the worst effects. I’m still frustrated with the government’s chaotic handling of everything, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t spend the rest of my life in lockdown.

I started December on an Arvon course tutored by Tania Hershman and Niall Campbell. While I wasn’t as focussed on any particular project as I should have been, the course was inspiring and gave me a lot of great ideas. It was also lovely to spend a week with a group of writers. The day after, I drove out to see my friend Sarah, along with her two dogs, and we walked a little of the Offa’s Dyke Path. My main impression was that it was incredibly windy.

During the month, I walked a total of 334,515 steps, a very low average of just under 10,800 steps a day. My largest total was 16,633 on the 27th, when my friend Naomi came to visit. After managing 10,000 daily steps for 2 years or more, I’m going to reduce this target to allow time for other forms of exercise. Rather than spending an hour and a half walking each day, I’d be better off spending a chunk of that time stretching or doing other exercise.

Several TV shows finished their runs in December. Hawkeye was fun but, like a lot of MCU stuff, felt inconsequential, too much continuity accounting. The Walking Dead: World Beyond was OK, but I found myself less interested in its politics than the wider world of the first season. After a slow start, Succession‘s third season ended with high drama, leaving a long wait for the next season. I also watched part of Dispatches from Elsewhere, which opened well, but didn’t sustain my interest beyond the first few episodes.

I saw the Matrix: Revolutions a couple of times – my first cinema trip since the pandemic. I loved the movie, finding it just what I needed right now. I’ve got a post in draft about that which will emerge in the next few days. I also watched Don’t Look Up, which is a great movie about inescapable doom.

I finished reading a few books. Paul Morley’s book on Tony Wilson was one of my favourite books of 2021. Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: in Stories was an intimate portrait of Anthony Bourdain but I’d have liked to see more of the legend. Written by close friends, the book also took a very harsh view of the circumstances of his death. Blaming one person and not allowing them a response other than a legalese footnote felt rough.

I finally deleted Pikmin Bloom from my phone. While the game showed promise, it was mostly about increasing stats. I suspect it would have been more fun when playing in a group. I also played a little of The Last of Us: Remastered, filling in the story of Joel and Ellie. It’s interesting how positive the first game was compared with the cynicism of the second.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 started quietly. As midnight came round, I was streaming Kate’s DJ set while drinking a fun-sized bottle of Prosecco.

I’m glad to see the back of 2021. While 2020 was a shock, 2021 was more challenging. Brighton felt incredibly claustrophobic and it was a relief to leave for open countryside in the midlands and, after that, to Halifax.

Moving to a new town is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. I lived in Brighton for 27 years and loved it, but life there had become predictable. I’d been thinking of leaving for some time, but the pandemic finally spurred me into action. This is probably the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I don’t have any big resolutions for 2022, but there are a few things I’m going to try:

  • I’m cutting back on my daily walking. While the commitment to daily exercise has been good, the arbitrary figure of 10,000 steps is a huge time investment. I’m not sure it’s good value either – I’d be better off spending some of that time stretching, meditating or doing other exercise. So, let’s see how that goes.
  • I’m going to carbon offset my life this year. Yes, I know carbon offsets don’t really work, but its more about producing feedback. True offsetting with something like climeworks is out of my budget, so I am going to go with myclimate for now. This is about signalling a (small) commitment to carbon reduction, and making myself aware of my impact through a personal carbon tax (a good article on this was recently published by Tim Harford: Why Carbon Taxes really Work)
  • I’m going to put more of my writing into the world. I’ve always been very bad about sharing the things I’ve worked on. In 2022 I am going to publish more work, whether its on this blog, twitter, instagram or elsewhere.

That’s about it, as I have more than enough to be getting on with. Having avoided infection/isolation over the Christmas period, I need to focus on settling into my new hometown. 2021 was a tough year, and I’m not expecting 2022 to be easy. But, having made a huge change in my life, I’m excited to see what is next.