Society of Ley-Hunters Moot

I was reading the most recent copy of Northern Earth a little late when I saw that the Society of Ley Hunters were holding their annual moot the following week in Todmorden, a short distance from my house. So, of course, I signed up and attended with my friend Ava.

The day included four talks: a discussion of leys in Calderdale; a personal account of spiritual awakening; a theory about ’intuitive alignments’; and a discussion of alt-antiquarianism and psychogeography. Before all this, John Billingsley gave us an introduction to Todmorden itself, and how “Todmorden has an undercurrent of weird ideas”. John talked about the town’s liminal nature, often swapping between Lancashire and Yorkshire, and how it exists on the boundary between cotton country and wool country, which he says led to the idea that corduroy was invented in nearby Hebden Bridge.

We did a session of dowsing in the lunch break. Dowsing is not something that fits into my conceptual frameworks of the world, except as some sort of ideomotor trick. Working with the rods, it was interesting to see how quickly they responded to subconscious expectation. We’d been told what we were marking out, so it was obviously suggestion, but the effect was still pronounced.

I found interesting things in each of the four talks, but my favourite was John Billingsley’s discussion of alt-antiquarianism and psychogeography. I particularly liked how this talk responded to psychogeography as an inherently political idea, rather than trying to turn it into something cosy, as sometimes happens.

John has edited NE since 1979, taking a revisionist approach to Earth mysteries, avoiding both Neo-paganism and materialism. Psychogeography was an aspect of this because of its link between mind and place.

Psychogeography was explicitly linked with urban spaces at its invention, but as John point out, “power and control are also present in the country”. An example of this that he gave was Stonehenge and how the heritage industry is part of consumer culture, gaining income through fencing off sites. John spoke about the need for synaesthesia and phenomenology as alternative ways of approaching places and for thinking in the same way as earlier communities did. He spoke inspiringly about places as palimpsest; and how, as well as lost pasts, there are lost futures within the landscape.

Walking the Coast-to-Coast: Northallerton to Blakey Ridge

This month I did the final section of the Coast to Coast, having walked the earlier parts of it in September 2021 and September 2022.

We rejoined the trail from Northallerton on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday. By the time we reached our starting point of Oak Tree Hill, my boots were damp. They stayed damp for several hours as we tramped through farms and muddy trails. Any long trail will have fill-in days that merely connect interesting parts, and the section from Richmond to Ingleby Arncliffe was an example of this. The landscape was flat and the route included a lot of tramping down roads, so I was glad that we’d chopped it into two. While it’s always good to be out hiking, some days are definitely better than others.

The Coast-to-Coast is by far the friendliest trail I’ve been on. Most of the venues along the way are friendly, both in terms of owners and other hikers. There are also a lot of honesty shops along the way, including a spooky one at Wray House Farm.

Our first day ended with a dash across the A19 at Ingleby Arncliffe. Apparently this section of the route was going to be diverted, which would have meant the closure of the Blue Bell Inn, but local MP Rishi Sunak persuaded the Treasury to fund a footbridge. The Blue Bell Inn is another excellent Coast to Coast venue, with various vegan options and lots of other hikers dining in.

Our second day was an epic 21-mile trek which I’d not broken up as I wanted to end the day at the Lion Inn on Blakey Ridge. We started with an epic climb through Arncliffe Wood, where we joined the Cleveland Way. There were some lovely moorland sections and we somehow avoided the worst of the weather on the flatlands below us.

We stopped at Lord Stones, which I’d expected to be a pleasant place to grab lunch. The staff were rude, the coffee was terrible, and outdoor speakers played grating music. Given the excellent welcome in most other places, this was a rare discordant note.

The middle of the day included a series of sharp climbs before a long road the wound out towards Blakey Ridge. The section ran along an old railway line and was a slightly dull end to a long day – Map 80 in my guidebook was almost entirely blank. I was tired and could feel myself slowing as the weather came in. We heard thunder, and I spotted some lightning, but the worst of the weather held off.

On the drive to Northallerton, I told Dave that I’d not called ahead to check about vegan food options. He laughed so much I thought he might crash the car. In the past I’ve had some underwhelming experiences, particularly for breakfast. Going to a remote pub did not seem like a great prospect for vegan food.

Well, I’m pleased to say that the Lion Inn is probably the best pub I’ve ever been in. We were warmly welcomed by lovely staff, there were seven vegan options on the menu, and the place was bustling. We were too tired for the public bar, but it was packed with people who’d driven out to the middle of nowhere on a Tuesday night. This is a place so good I’m considering coming up for a stay another time. It was the perfect place to recover from a long day’s hiking.

How to be Invisible: A Zine

Our zine How I Became Invisible was originally published in July 2021. It was organised by the Invisibles cell that I’ve been involved with since 2019.

As well as producing this zine, we have put on an exhibition (my talk from this day is available online), recorded albums and released short films such as The Elements Ritual.

The group originally met in October 2019, arising from a forum I set up to re-read the Invisibles on its 25th anniversary. While the forum did not take off, the group has continued to meet online and in person over the past few years.

Link to PDF (4.1MB)

Losing access to my Instagram account (and the perils of automated AI)

I had an email this morning, telling me that my Instagram account had been blocked:

Your account has been suspended. This is because your account, or activity on it, does not follow our Community Guidelines.

As far as I can make out from the links provided, my recent posting behaviour hit some sort of filter that identified me as a bot. I was sent a numeric code and told to submit a selfie of that number written on a piece of paper. This selfie had to include my hands, presumably to prove that the image was not AI-generated.

Having my Instagram account deleted is sad, but it’s not a huge loss. I did not lose the only copy of any photos (there was no option to download my data), but there were message threads with a couple of people I don’t have other ways of contacting. The process is bureaucratic and Kafkaesque, and I can imagine it being unpleasant and alienating for people who rely on their instagram (particularly for those who run businesses using it).

I guess this sort of thing is going to happen more often in future, particularly as more customer service is automated. I dread trying to persuade my phone company, bank or the government that my account is legitimate – or attempting to regain control in the case of being hacked.

There’s also a question here about how ‘communities’ function under corporate control. Instagram’s services are free to me, and my ad-blockers does mean I am not an ideal user. I am there on their sufferance. There is no offer of any help to regain the account. An algorithm has made a decision and I cannot contact a human to appeal. Their service, their rules.

Is AI/ChatGPT as exciting as people say?

On this page, I’m collecting together some links about AI that I want to refer back to. Those are below; but first I wanted to discuss what I find interesting about AI right now.

I’ve been suspicious of the hype around AI for a long time, but I keep reading articles saying that AI models will revolutionise the economy, replacing millions of jobs. I’m even seeing serious articles saying that these new AIs are approaching sentience and are an existential threat to humanity.

One theory I’ve read is that the AI hype is so loud because the crypto grifters have moved onto this: there is always a profit to be made from hyping the next big thing. It was also an amazing marketing move from OpenAI to claim that their early models were too dangerous for people to have open access.

At the same time, very smart people I know, people I trust, are telling me there is something important here. And I’ve had several dreams about prompting AIs – so I should not be dismissing this too easily.

I’ve been playing a little with ChatGPT recently. Showing a friend how it could generate an email was an enlightening moment. He doesn’t like writing formal messages and having a detailed text produced from a prompt seemed revolutionary. My own experiments show that ChatGPT is good at certain types of output, but its grasp on facts is hazy. Asking it about things I know well, like hiking routes, it returns plausible information, but lacks telling details and gets significant facts wrong. This is beguiling, miraculous technology, but it (currently) has very clear limits.

Links on AI

The following are some good pieces that I have read on AI:

My current view

I find it hard to see how these huge statistical models are related to ‘true intelligence’, even as they raise questions by doing things that we once thought relied on intelligence. One notable thing is that (as with machine translation) these models are entirely reliant on human-produced work. This has led to the ethical questions around the model incorporating copyrighted works – and I note (via the Washington Post) that this blog is one of the sources for Google’s C4 data set:

I also wonder how much further these models can go. It won’t be long before the deluge of AI content begins to be absorbed into the models, which may undermine their effectiveness.

I also suspect there is a limit to the effectiveness of LLMs for problem solving. Matt Webb’s Braggoscope is the most compelling experiment I’ve seen, where ChatGPT was used to classify the thousands of In Our Time podcasts into the dewey decimal system. It’s a task where small inaccuracies will cause little harm, and Webb estimates that the automation of this was 108x faster than doing it manually.

But for tasks like programming, much of the art is not in producing the code, but figuring out what code needs to be written. It’s possible that a new paradigm of programming emerges from AI, but for any form of programming as we currently understand it, the trick is not writing the code but defining what code we want written, and making sure that we have achieved our aims.

The difficulty with AI is in producing very specific text. Producing remarkable sonnets about odd subjects is breath-taking, but getting an AI to write Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Pierre Menard’s Selections from Quixote would be a different matter.

Book review: literally show me a healthy person

Darcie Wilder’s 2017 book, literally show me a healthy person is very much a twitter novel, consisting mostly of aphoristic sentences. It bears obvious comparisons to Patricia Lockwood’s No-one is Talking About This (2021), particularly since both juxtapose the ephemerality of twitter with the realities of grief.

Wilder’s book is both shorter and scrappier. It buries the story about trauma under glib, often funny phrases (one that particularly stood out: “saying ‘awesome’ on work calls is just another way to stay punk” – I feel slighted). The lines about nihilistic partying come to stand in reaction to the narrator’s descriptions of childhood trauma.

I think this aphoristic style works well, and captures one of the strangest feelings of the social media age – what the Content Mines podcast referred to as ‘structural dissonance’ – the way in which social media platforms blur together trivia, marketing messages and horrific news. One example that the Content Mines used was when the SweetMiniDollsHouse Instagram account interrupted its posts about dolls house miniatures to document the account owner’s pictures of the Ukraine invasion.

This is an extreme example, but social media is full of such examples. Pictures of people partying rub alongside political messages. When Wilder’s narrator fails to focus on their trauma (and any chance/attempt of healing) it reflects the way that we bury things in favour of surface entertainments.

The idea that trivia is a distraction from the world’s issues is a common criticism of capitalism but social media provides a constant distraction from our own lives (there are values to these tools, but they are easily swamped by commercial needs). The world we live in very much reflects the one described in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which predicted the current media landscape from 1967.

David Shields’ 2010 book Reality Hunger predicted more texts like Wilder’s novel, with its aphorisms and blurring of fact with fiction (many of the narrator’s lines were originally posted on Wilder’s twitter account). literally show me a healthy person is a good example of the sort of novel Shields was talking about.

Looking for something in my blog this week, I found a link from 2010 to Russell Davies’ review of a Douglas Couplan novel. Davies wrote:

I’m sure I’ll read more of Mr Coupland’s books but I’d almost rather read his lists or his notes. It seems like he’s the perfect novelist to write the something-that’s-not-a-novel that must be just around the corner.

I’ve been waiting for this “something-that’s-not-a-novel” promised by Reality Hunger for a long time now. Wilder’s novel is a good example of the form.

Pennine Way Day 6: Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale

The walk between Malham and Horton-in-Ribblesdale was one of the grimmest hikes I’ve done in my life, enough that I questioned my whole approach to hiking. Was a day of being wet and cold really that much fun? I also reconsidered my somewhat-cavalier attitude. In more difficult or unlucky circumstances, my walk from Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale could have led to disaster.

I started the day in Gargrave, where I’d stayed in an Airbnb. The weather app on my phone told me that there would be rain, but I didn’t want to go home without hiking, and it was hard to tell exactly what the rain symbols meant. Did a single raindrop mean just a little rain, maybe not enough to need full waterproofs? Did three raindrops mean heavy rain for a full hour, or that was the worst it would be during that hour?

I set out at 6:30am from my Airbnb and had a good hike to Malham. The route was well signposted and flat, so I made good time. The path beside the River Aire was charming and had some pleasant hills. The dew soon soaked into my boots, meaning I had many hours of damp feet ahead of me.

Malham Cove was almost empty when I arrived, and even though I’ve been a few times, it still felt impressive. It was a tough walk up to the top, but the reward was some good views.

The Limestone Pavement at the top of Malham Cove

From the top of Malham Cove the route heads through a small rocky valley. It was starting to rain here and I lost the path for the first time, guided back onto the route by Google Maps.

The weather grew worse by the time I reached Malham Tarn, forcing me into full waterproofs. There is a rare Pennine Way public toilet near the lake and I hid there for a time until I felt ready to face the rain. My choice was to either turn back to Malham and try to get a taxi or to press on with the journey. I chose to continue.

Due to the rain I was not checking the route as I went through some farmland, and I overshot the turning at Tenant’s Gill Farm, ending up on the road to Arncliffe. I followed the road for a time then sheltered in a barn while I tried to work out where I was. I’d failed to pack a map, the guidebook was proving no help, and my phone had no signal. I knew I was was in trouble as I walked back for a time, then turned again and tried the other way. I was probably five miles from anywhere I could shelter properly.

I was lucky enough to have a farmer come by, who told me I’d overshot Tenant’s Gill Farm by about a mile. He was feeding his sheep but told me to meet him at the top of the hill and he’d point me towards Fountains Fell. The route he showed me went through a gate, then I should continue to a flock of sheep where I could turn right and follow a wall until I reached a major path.

Ominous cows following as I head back onto the Pennine Way

The safest thing to do would have been to return to Tenant’s Gill Farm and find my bearings from there, but I was reluctant to add more distance to my day: I wanted to reach Horton-in-Ribblesdale and warm up. As it was, the walk back to the Pennine Way was an easy one, but I was aware that the combination of bad weather, being lost and my own stupidity could become dangerous. Nobody knew when I was expected back, and it could be a long time before anyone noticed I was missing. An accident so far off the path would not have been good.

Once back on the path things were straightforward, although I probably lost about an hour in total. I reached the Twin Cairns and began the long descent towards a road. Coming down the grassy sections I slipped over a few times, which was harmless but annoying. I hid from the rain in a barn with another hiker, then continued on my way to Pen-y-ghent.

I should have had views of Pen-y-ghent for the previous few hours, but visibility was very slight. Given how tired I was, and how the day had been going, I felt that climbing Pen-y-ghent would be pushing my luck, and turned left to head towards the village.

This was the route up Pen-y-ghent.

I actually regret not climbing Pen-y-ghent as my route to the village was long and slippy, and I think the Pennine Way path might have been less trouble. I ended up in Horton-in-Ribblesdale with 90 minutes until my train, and made the mistake of going into the Crown Pub.

This should have been a view of Pen-y-ghent

As I entered the Crown, two people coming out warned me against it. I wish I’d listened to them. The pub was chilly, both literally and figuratively. There were no food or hot drinks available, which seems like poor hospitality for a pub that makes its profits from the hiking trail. It could certainly be more welcoming to those who, like me, had had a cold, wet day. I was relieved when it was time to head to the station.

I’m taking some lessons from this hike. First, I am going to follow the suggested rules for hiking, making sure that people know where I am headed in case things go wrong. I will always pack a map and a thermal blanket. If I’d injured myself while off the trail it would be unlikely I’d be found without a search party – and who knows how long it would have been before anyone asked for that? I will not risk putting other people to such inconvenience in future.

During the two hour train journey home, I could not imagine wanting to go hiking again – certainly not if there was any risk of rain. But the more time passes from the discomfort of the hike, the more I remember the good parts of the day – the wildness of the rainy landscape, chatting to the other hiker in the barn, the confidence of knowing I could make the journey despite the weather. It would be a poor thing to only hike in the sunshine.

I’m not sure Mr Bull wanted me in his barn

Podcast: How to Protect yourself from a Coronation

The Coronation weekend has been a strange one. I’ve been doing my best to ignore the whole affair and, while the press insist that this is a major historic event, it’s been easier to ignore than I expected. There seem to be few street parties and little sign of bunting. The biggest impact it’s made on my life is Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files sending out a defence of his attendance at the coronation.

But there is something sinister about this. We have a ceremony to crown an unelected head of state, against a background of an increasingly racist and authoritarian government, in a country where austerity and the cost of living crisis means lots of people can’t afford to live.

The spectacle of the coronation is intended to reaffirm a particular vision of our country. The ridiculous pomp is meant to seem anachronistic; the contradiction of this archaic ceremony is supposed to contrast with modern life, to persuade us that there’s no point arguing against the idea of a country whose rulers are defined by right of birth. You could even claim this illusion is an act of magic.

My friends Cat Vincent, Rob Rider Hill and the Indelicates have teamed up to produce a quick-turnaround podcast for this coronation weekend. It discusses the coronation ceremonies as an act of magic, and talks about how to protect yourself against them, with a quick introduction to defending yourself from the dark arts. It’s a good discussion, which takes time out to discuss the subject for those who have ‘no affinity for woo’.

Despite Nick Cave’s defence of his attendance, I’m disappointed at seeing him recuperated by a state which banned protests against the ceremony. It’s never good to see artists flirting with the establishment

The coronation seems to be less popular than expected, but the important thing is how it settles in the mind. We need to choose to remember the things this is supposed to distract us from. As Cat Vincent says on the podcast, the important thing is ”the act of choosing no”

(One interesting thread that Simon picks up on is the linking the popularity of folk horror and traditional customs/rituals to the current political climate. Which is something I could (and should) write a lot more about).

Pennine Way Day 5: Ponden to Gargrave

Ponden Reservoir

Getting back to Ponden reservoir was easy enough. The bus to Howarth leaves from near my house, and a taxi took me to where I previously left the trail. I’d booked a room in an Airbnb in Gargrave and it was a simple sixteen miles or to to my destination. I was leaving a little later than usual, but planned to arrive around six.

The day’s walk began with a stroll around Ponden reservoir before climbing out of the valley, with some good views on the way up. The route was wiggly but well-signposted, delivering me to a lovely stretch of moorland. I even passed a peacock on the way up.

A good stride across an empty moor took me to some grouse-hunter’s huts. From here, the landscape was mostly tamed and felt less interesting. I passed through Ickornshaw village and hopped between fields. When I reached the Hare and Hounds at Lowthersdale I stopped for lunch and had a couple of non-alcoholic beers. It took a little time to rebuild my momentum after that.

Passing through Lowthersdale

The day’s highest point was Pinhaw Beacon, which features a new ‘toposcope’ in memory of those who died in the Covid-19 pandemic. I love seeing little guides to the landscape like this, although it was marred by a ghastly poem, based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare you to a summer’s cold? / You are more virulent and fatal”).

There were a few wild stretches in the second half of the day, but the route was mostly farmland. It rained for a while, forcing me into waterproofs. For a section it followed a canal (although the double-decker bridge was curious).

Gargrave is one of the main towns on the Pennine Way, with the famous Dalesman cafe sitting directly on the route. There was a choice of a few places to eat, but I didn’t fancy two pub meals in a day. The gastropub revolution has raised the standard of British pub food, but a lot of it is overpriced. Every pub likes to pretend its meals are worthy of gastropub prices, but that’s not always the case.

The local curry house was booked up, but they allowed me to take one of the tables on their patio. Eating al fresco on an April evening was chilly, but the food was good.

Overall the day’s landscapes were pretty, but this section is not as exciting as some. It’s also, perhaps, churlish to complain about sections not being wild, given that much of the moorland on the Pennine Way is now paved with flagstones. In the days before these were laid out the route was extremely challenging, and I’d probably not walk it without the man-made paths. The accounts of people being swallowed up by the bogs do not sound much fun.

I went to bed straight after the curry, tired and needing rest ready for the 21 mile hike I’d planned for the following day.

A thin, faint section of the Pennine Way

Why ARGs never worked

Back in November 2022 I gave a talk to students at Leeds Trinity University about transmedia storytelling, specifically around alternate reality games and electronic folklore. Researching the talk allowed me to explore my long-held fascination with ARGs.

The first ARG I heard about was The Beast, which was beautifully dissected by 50 Years of Text Adventures. The ARG initially looked like a new art form, an Internet-native way to tell stories: “the team began to see their scheme as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing art form for the new century, just as opera and cinema had been for earlier eras“. The form generated fanatical audiences – one puzzle from Perplex City was solved recently after 15 years of effort.

The most exciting thing for me was how ARGs told stories in the world. They merged reality and fiction, promising to make normal life a little more magical. I loved the idea of hosting stories within the world, of walking through them; how technology allowed ARGs to reach out to people through email or even phone calls.

But ARGs never took off, and I personally never got excited enough to chase them. One issue was the actual mechanics. I liked the idea of seeing symbols in the real world that led to an ongoing story, but the actual ARGs did not have the magic I longed for. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles so that is perhaps a part of it – I like the joy of solving something, but pitching the difficulty is tricky – too easy and it’s trivial, too hard and it’s frustrating.

This led to one of the problems with ARGs, that some of them had puzzles so hard that they could only be solved once. In a 2008 talk about ARGs, Everything you know about ARGs is WRONG, Dan Hon talked about the need for ‘casual’ ARGs with “short, snappy, fun gameplay”. The sort of thing that did not require people pooling obscure knowledge. As Hon said, “What the fuck kind of “normal person”… wants to de-steg a jpeg, or write a distributed brute force attack against military grade encryption? Jesus. Whatever happened to the kind of people who like playing Singstar? Or, you know, Snake”. Puzzles based on lute tablature are great, but they are not going to bring in many people. Without active communities, these games are basically unplayable.

The other problem with the games was scaling up to massive audiences. Some of the ARGs made use of personalised e-mails to players. The Dark Knight promotion famously baked cakes containing clues. Quoting Hon again, “It’s fine sending a cake to twenty people. You just try sending a cake to twenty thousand people though. Or twenty million”. This is “by intention an experience that can never scale to become a mass-market event“. Admittedly, the cake stunt brought a lot of vicarious delight, but then we’re back to the games relying on active community.

The games also quickly developed cliches, which were being clued out as past their sell-by date in 2008. Hon was harsh on codebreaking, secret societies, intrusive puzzles and treasure hunts (“I’ll smack the next person who proposes a treasure hunt and thinks it will make people play”). Another problem was hopping between platforms just for the sake of it.

A major point of contention was the boundary between the games and real life. I was fascinated by the idea of blurring these boundaries, but many ARG designers became obsessed with the idea of pretending the games were entirely real, and hiding all the seams – a technique known as TINAG, ‘this is not a game’. Dan Hon pointed out in a talk that ‘Alternate Reality’ is just a roundabout way of saying ‘fictional’. “No more “alternate reality” bullshit. We can use the word “fiction” or “story” instead, so normal people can understand us.” Later in the same talk, he said that ”ARGs are just things that you can play and that tell stories. ARG doesn’t mean anything.” Expending so much energy into pretending these things are entirely real is a waste of time.

I think there are many lessons that can be learned from ARGs. As Andrea Phillips said in an article on Atlas Obscura, “A lot of [the ARG] energy has gone into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.

The collaboration and investigation aspects of the games seemed to work better for explainers/investigations of TV shows like Lost where people would blog and discuss clues in the episodes – while most viewers ignored the actual ARGs that had been built around the game. People love looking for clues in serialised drama, and the ‘replayability’ of TV shows is much higher than for ARGs.