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.

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. The metafilter post also linked to another interesting post, Why everything might have taken so long

Monthnotes: March 2024

The start of March found me glitchy and disorganised, a little overstimulated. I wasn’t burned out, but I was definitely singed from the Sweden trip and juggling two projects at work. On top of that, my sleeping patterns have been terrible, so that I was sometimes waking up at 4am, unable to get back to sleep. The month was basically a slog towards easter and the relief of a four-day break.

Dan and I launched the kickstarter for True Clown Stories. I should have published this back in 2011, but never got it off the launchpad. I looked into running a kickstarter back in June 2022, but it only got moving once Dan was involved. Running a crowd-funding campaign is a fun experiment, but it’s hard to make a continued impact. We’re currently at 60% with 18 days to go. I’m not sure if we will make the target or not, but let’s see. If you’ve not checked it out then please have a look.

I had a couple of trips this month. I visited Muffy in Blackpool and also went to Sheffield to see Rosy Carrick’s show Musclebound. It’s an incredible performance and I loved seeing it again. The show also brought together a few old friends, which was lovely. A great night out.

It’s been the last few weeks of the work steps competition. I walked 511,243 steps in March, for an average of 16,492 a day, with my highest total being 34,538 when I walked to Todmorden and back. Among all the other chaos of March, my diet has been a little unfocussed, and my weight increasing by 1/5 pound. Now that I feel a little less burned out, I can hopefully sort my eating out a little.

Work has been interesting, as I’ve been transitioning between projects. I left my previous project with some excellent feedback, which I feel very happy about. I’ve taken a little time to find my rhythm with the new one, although I’m enjoying working with a typescript stack. I’ve also been doing some interesting investigations into lambda cold starts.

At Rosy’s show I saw some people I’d not seen in years and, when they asked me about work, I found myself saying how much I love my job. And I truly do. I’m 16 months in, but I still feel excitement at the start of most days. I’m rarely bored, I’m challenged, and I am learning lots of new things. I’d never thought I would find so much meaning and satisfaction in a job.

I made some effort to focus more on reading books in March. The highlight was Booker prize winner Prophet Song, recommended by Jude. It took me a few attempts to get going with this, but once I did, I read it in a matter of days. Richard Norris’s biography Strange things are Happening was a great easter read. I’ve also been enjoying the graphic novel series Something is Killing the Children, rationing out an issue a night.

I watched 20 movies over the month – too many maybe? Highlights included the The Third Men, which seemed wonderful, despite being almost 80 years old. The remake of Road House was entertaining AF, and Tom Cruise was impressive in Michael Mann’s Collateral. I went to the IMAX to watch Dune 2 which was looked incredible but was somehow empty. Under the Silver Lake was flawed but thought-provoking. About 20 years after seeing it at the cinema, I rewatched But I’m a Cheerleader and was, this time, blown away. I also wrote a blog post ranking the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Before the Kickstarter launched, I was seriously thinking about quitting writing. I’ve sold very few copies of Memetic Infection Hazards and, after months of writing the substack, my subscriptions had been flat. It struck me that the time I spent writing might be more effectively spent on my job. Then came a mention in John Higgs’ newsletter which lifted my spirits, as well as boosting my substack readership. And while the kickstarter has been slow, these are real people who have signed up.

Thinking about it, eight months of sending out a weekly story is far from nothing, and would have been unthinkable at most points in my past. Having an audience on the Substack also forces me to think more carefully about what stories are worth working on. I’ve deleted a lot of old notes, and what remains is very exciting.

I spent Easter clearing the decks a little. Throughout March, I felt overwhelmed by too much media, too many emails, and too much that I needed to do. It would have been good to do more with the break, but I feel better for having got things under control.

  • I realised recently that it’s a year since my last visit to Brighton, which seems odd. While I miss people there, I’ve not missed the place much. Although I am longing for a La Choza burrito, and Rosy has promised to bring one up when she next visits.
  • I had a couple of minor headaches in March, but nothing bad enough to force me into bed. So, it looks like increasing the amount of water I drink is working.
  • I blogged about the depressing state of Britain.

Look who I have visiting at the moment:

Britain is miserable

Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day email linked yesterday to a New Yorker piece, “What Have Fourteen Years of Conservative Rule Done to Britain?”. It’s grim reading, describing how post-financial crisis austerity has basically crashed the country. The article looks at the inequalities around austerity, how it affected poorer areas more than ones with Tory voters – and how the richest 20% have thrived while the less affluent suffered. It also talks about how many public services have collapsed.

This year’s election seems to offer a resounding Labour victory – my concerns about the Tories doing well look increasingly unlikely. But, unlike in 1997, Labour are not offering any change. Until now, they’ve been offering a caretaker government which won’t rock the boat. We seem to face a continuation of this grim period of stagnation.

It’s the 25th anniversary of The Matrix, which has meants a few nostalgia pieces in the papers. One noted Agent Smith’s explanation of why the simulation was set in 1999: because, he said, it was “the peak of your civilisation”. In 1999, Britain certainly felt a much more optimistic place than it is now. It’s going to take a long time to set the damage from austerity right.

Sam Knight’s article is a depressing read, but an important one. It sets out how miserable things are, but also how it came to be this bad. And, maybe, with the right policies, this could be turned around.

The True Clown Stories Kickstarter is now live!

On Thursday morning, Dan from Peakrill press kicked off the True Clown Stories kickstarter. We’re looking for pledges of £900 to support the publication of a book of my clown stories. It also features work from Chris Parkinson, Louise Halvardsson and Michael Somerset Ward.

These clown stories are not straightforward tales about evil clowns. Rather, they’re about talented people who’ve devoted themselves to an art yet struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes this causes them to be angry, other times they despair. Some of the pieces date back to the noughties and were read at spoken word nights. Others have been written over the last few years.

This is a book I’ve been meaning to publish for an embarrassingly long time – we’re talking over a decade. Dan has pushed this project towards being a reality. We just need £500 more in pledges and it will happen.

Book review: Biography of X

Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X is one of the best books I’ve read recently. It features a widow investigating her wife, an avant-garde artist. Much of it is set in the 60s/70s New York art scene, with direct quotes from a number of real-life sources. The book also includes photographs which Lacey found in junk shops, repurposed for her story. Lacey even commissioned designers to make book jackets for the main character.

I love when novels mix reality and fiction. But Lacey does something incredibly strange. She sets the book in an alternate timeline where America fragmented after World War Two. One section is a dystopian theocracy, with the book set in a very liberal section of the country. Lacey used this change to allow her to write about the relationship she was interested in:

I didn’t want to get into the heterosexual dynamics of a man writing about a woman or a woman writing about a man; it had to be two women. At the same time, I wanted the novel to be set in the mid-20th century but I wasn’t interested in writing about the actual struggles a prominent lesbian couple would have gone through in that time. So my alternate history grew out of that problem. I thought, if I have an America where this female artist could exist and this couple could exist without having to justify themselves, I just need a totally different America.

I thought this level of ambition was incredible, with Lacey changing an entire world to produce a setting for the characters she wanted to write about. The result is strange and beautiful. Reading it, I longed for more novels like this one.

Book Review: Benny the Blue Whale

Benny the Blue Whale book is the latest collaboration between ChatGPT and an established writer. The core of it is, effectively, a transcript of the sessions where Andy Stanton persuaded ChatGPT to tell a long story about a blue whale with a tiny penis.

The book’s layout is stunning, with the transcript on the left-hand pages, and the right hand pages devoted to notes. There are also footnotes, as well as footnotes within footnotes. The book feels like a screen with multiple windows. I’d love to read more books with this sort of layout.

I found the story itself less interesting – it was not really my sense of humour and I often found it tiresome. But I enjoyed Stanton’s observations about ChatGPT and the writing process. A lot of responses to ChatGPT are either credulous or dismissive – it’s more interesting to see a writer engage with the question of the possibiliy of ChatGPT producing great work.

This is a book very much of its time – it is basically someone describing a series of prompts they made to ChatGPT. It’s is a book about first encounters with LLMs. I suspect its long-term importance will be in capturing a particular moment.

I most enjoyed Stanton’s discussions of improv and narrative theory. In one section, he demolishes the idea that authored art will be replaced by people interacting with GenAI. We don’t want to have to work for our stories. “Ultimately I want my fiction to be frozen. I want someone to have picked the very best throughline they could”

2024 Best Picture Oscar

The 2024 Oscars ceremony takes place next Sunday. There are ten films nominated for best picture, and I decided to watch them all. I only loved a few of them, but I enjoyed watching them and reading the other responses on Letterboxd, seeing what other people made of them.

I have no idea who will actually win best picture, as my tastes are very much personal to me, and I imagine the award panel has very different criteria to the ones I have. But here are some short responses to the ten films in reverse order of how much I liked/disliked them.

  • Poor Things I loathed this movie. The idea of men having sex with a child in a woman’s body is incredibly problematic. Emma Stone brings a lot to the role, and I appreciate a lot of people had very different responses to me, but I could not get past the concept.
  • Barbie was clever and iconic, but ultimately it was a toy advert.
  • Maestro I am so bored of biopics about successful men.
  • Anatomy of a Fall I can see why a lot of people liked this one. Sandra Hüller’s acting is superb, and Messi rightfully won the Palm Dog. I’m just not a fan of this sort of courtroom mystery.
  • Past Lives I’m glad I saw this but, while I appreciated the film, it didn’t work for me. I found it too gentle but I liked what it tried to do.
  • Oppenheimer another biopic about a successful man, but far more entertaining that Maestro. I can’t help thinking there was a better film about physics and modernism hinted at by the first 15 minutes.
  • American Fiction interesting character drama hobbled by heavy-handed literary satire. An excellent cast and an interesting ending.
  • The Holdovers a little too heavily plotted, but an entertaining film that made me laugh.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon a superb epic, with incredible performances from Gladstone and DiCaprio.
  • The Zone of Interest a powerful and disturbing movie with an incredible soundscape.

While there were only four movies I loved on this list, I’m glad I tried them all. It’s too easy for me to just watch the same sort of movie again and again.

Monthnotes: February 2024

After an awkward January, I had my mojo back for February. Work and writing flowed well, and I got to catch up with some people. I had a trip to Sheffield with Katharine, as well as a gathering in Hebden Bridge to see double-drummer dance band AK/DK. That was a highlight – a load of people meeting for food at my house before going out dancing. I’ve not done that since pre-pandemic. I ended the month with a business trip to Gothenburg.

The big news is, I think I’ve got to the bottom of what is causing my headaches. It seems to be dehydration, although the underlying problem is that, apparently, some people are not very good at knowing when they’re thirsty, and I’m one of them. It’s a little like when I destroyed my first car because the oil light didn’t work. I did have a couple of headaches last month, but they’ve not been severe, so drinking more water does seem to be the answer. What’s weird is that the headaches seem to come on Tuesdays.

A steps competition at work has encouraged me to do more walking, and my total for the month was 483,139 steps, the most since May last year (when I walked part of the Coast-to-Coast). That’s an average of 16,660 steps daily, with my largest total being 26,616 from the day I saw AK/DK. I am getting a little fitter from this, as measured against my climbs of the hill behind my house. My weight is still high, but it’s trending downwards, with 2½ pounds coming off this month.

My new approach to writing continues to go well. I’m deleting lots of old notes (18,000 words on the Souths Downs way in one day) and it feels like I’m making space for new ideas. I wrote two new stories for the Wednesday Writers (Shivers and Wabi Sabi), and another story came to me almost complete before work one morning (Don’t Just Bury Your Trauma). In the past I spent too much time writing notes rather than actually working on stories. Warren Ellis linked to a good piece discussing this: On notes, outlines, and somehow cobbling a script together… I’m more excited about my writing than ever before.

I watched 10 movies through the month, including 6 Best Picture nominations, three of them at the cinema. Zone of Interest was by far the best of the nominees. I also saw Wild Water at the Hebden Bridge cinema, a lovely documentary about Gaddings Dam. My favourite movie was All of Us Strangers, which might have been the best-looking film I’ve ever seen – all those gorgeous sunsets and dawns. I’m impressed I made it out to the cinema for 5 movies in a month.

I only read two books this month, one of them a re-read of Ben Graham’s excellent Electric Tibet. I also read Jess Richard’s memoir Birds and Ghosts which was beautiful and heartbreaking. Something to focus on in March is ensuring my reading is less chaotic. I’m trying to absorb more media than I have the capacity for, and I need to get a grip.

Work has been fun. My current client project hit a big milestone, with its first production transaction. Travelling to Sweden was fun, although my experience of Gothenburg was airport-hotel-office-dinners, although I did snatch 30 minutes to see Lou Ice. I gave a talk on Spring AI, which went well. I’ve been trying to write up more about the things I’ve looked which is proving helpful. There are a few new posts on my programming blog:

With all the walking, I’ve been listening to many more podcasts than usual. I worked my way through ODB: A Son Unique in a couple of days, and loved it. Also excellent was the Subterraneans podcast (which I’m almost up to date with) and Joseph Matheny’s appearance on The Long Seventies podcast.

Is it possible to change from being a cat person to a dog person? I still love cats, but I really want a dog. But I can’t see a way to fit one into my current lifestyle.

A found this amazing cake at Clouds In My Coffee with Jude

Writer’s Notebook: The power of a project

Looking back, some of my most enjoyable things I’ve done have been challenging projects:

  • Working at Future Platforms to build one of the UK’s earliest dating apps.
  • Completing my MA.
  • Working as a ‘technical liaison’ on a project with an ambitiously short deadline in 2017.
  • Being involved with the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage and setting up an online radio station for it.

I see certain things in common here – all of these items were ambitious goals with a fixed deadline and required hard work and collaboration. This is true even of the MA – while the work was solo, I made a lot of good friends on the course, and we all discussed our projects and supported each other.

One of the things I’m always telling people in agile projects is that you should look at the past to shape the future. Looking back here, some of the best experiences I’ve had have involved well-defined projects that I was dedicated to. Each of these took a significant investment of time of energy, over a fixed duration. And, for each of them, the goal was clear.

So: I should look for more projects like these, or consider seeing how I can make the things I want to do into such projects.