Iteration 17: Supernatural (and Lucky (2021))

A Friday or so back, it was March 384th 2020 and I watched another time loop story. This was an episode from the third season of the TV series Supernatural called Mystery Spot. I’ve never watched a single episode of Supernatural, so it was interesting to see how this show handled the time loop against its ongoing storylines.

So many of the tropes used were common ones – breakfast in a diner, the repeating accidents, and dialogue referring to Groundhog Day. We saw one character die each day, resetting the loop. The exit from this loop was a little disappointing, relying on a character returning from a previous episode of the show. It was light, but fun to see how a TV show quickly established the loop.

I watched another film which was the first one I picked out that did not qualify as a time loop. I chose Lucky since it had been compared to Groundhog Day. Sadly, it didn’t meet my criteria, despite a clever and original premise, and one that is bitterly relevant. Spoilers follow.

May, a self-help writer, is woken at night by an intruder in the house. “Don’t worry,” says her husband. “That’s just the man.”

“Which man?”

“The one who comes to kill us.”

It’s an arresting start, although May’s amnesia does not fit with the rest of the film. Otherwise, the movie works well. Some scenes seem ridiculous at first, such as the attitude of the police, but this becomes part of the disturbing and absurd world of the film. May is gaslighted and patronised, and comes to realise that the things that are happening to her are happening to all the other women around her. It’s a devasting turn.

I’m not sure how many people would be eager to watch a movie about systemic violence against women, even one written and directed by women. But this was a powerful and emotional film, and one that sticks with me. The score was excellent, using a strange choral sound to generate tension, which is effective and makes a change from jarring strings. A good film, just not one that qualifies as a time loop in my criteria.

Iteration 10: 12:01pm

Yesterday was March 375th 2020, and I marked it by watching two time-loop movies. I then watched the short film 12:01pm. This is one of two adaptations of a short story by Richard A. Lupoff and it’s available on youtube. Spoilers follow.

Myron Castleman is trapped within a one-hour loop, which takes place during his lunch break. We initially see him sitting and talking to a woman on a park bench, and he explains to her that time is due to reset.

This is a pulp sci-fi story and the ‘time bounce’ is caused by the collision between matter and anti-matter universes. I know it’s just a macguffin, but it’s irritating. The consequences of the loop are far more interesting than the explanation, particularly when the explanation’s physics makes no sense. Despite the window-dressing, the film managed to show Myron’s frustration at being stuck within the same hour.

(The film is also interesting because it’s made plain that the entire world is looping. Myron is the only person conscious of this fact).

(Something that is rarely considered in these films is whether the universe continues after the resets. In a multiverse, we might have each day continuing, with most of them making no sense to the person who has just left the loop. Imagine Bill Murray’s Phil Connor leaving one of the loops a day or two before he fell in love…)

This was originally made as a TV film in 1990, and that affects the quality. The interaction between Myron and the woman on the bench feels dated, as does his treatment of his secretary. This was nominated for ‘Best Short Film, Live Action’ in the 1991 Oscars, and subsequently remade into a full movie whose makers considered suing Groundhog Day‘s producers.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration: 9 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 6 minutes
  • Reset point: the end of an hour
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect
  • Exit from the loop: no exit

The Beginning of the End (Day 344)

I was surprised at how relieved and excited I was by last night’s government announcements. This morning I feel lighter and calmer than I have in weeks. All social restrictions might be gone by June 21st (day 462 of my personal lockdown). The end is in sight.

I’ve been fraying during this third lockdown, and I’ve seen some friends responding similarly. We’ve already been doing this lockdown for 50 days and it’s been hard, particularly for those living alone. A few days ago, the Zoe App said they were amending the symptom list, “adding fatigue, sore throat, headache and diarrhoea to the ‘classic triad’ of cough, fever and loss of smell“. Headaches and fatigue are pretty much constants for me and a lot of people I know – the ‘lockdown hangover’. We are sleeping badly and waking up to repeat the same day we’ve had for weeks.

At least now we have something to look forward to. I imagine everyone has now seen the four-stage plan (although it wouldn’t be this government without some daft complexity, and stage 1 is actiually split into two parts). 8th March, two people can meet socially outdoors. 29th March sees the ‘rule of six’ and outdoor social gatherings. 12th April, shops and holiday accommodation open. 17th May, the rule of six allows indoor gatherings again. And, if all goes to plan, the nightclubs reopen on June 21st, and all social restrictions are lifted.

It’s still a long time, but the weather is improving and the vaccine seems to be working. Even the gamble about delaying second doses appears to have paid off. There still needs to be a reckoning with the appalling errors and waste by the government but, for now, I just want to look forward to June.

GPT-3 and the future of writing

Liam Porr recently askedWhat does it mean when a computer can write about our problems better than we can?”. He backed this up with the claim that he had received 26,000 views on a blog post written by GPT-3. GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3) is a tool based on 4.5 TB of data that can generate text that seems like it has been written by a human. One of the Liam Porr’s blog posts even made it to the top of the hacker news site, with only one person asking if the texts had been generated via Machine Learning. Porr went on to say “I believe that GPT-3 has the potential to change the way we write“:

All I need to write is a good title and intro. I could write five of them in an hour and publish them all in one day if I wanted to.  In other words, one good writer with GPT-3 can now do the same work that took a team of content creators before. 

This is a bold claim, and worth looking into. After all, if Porr is right, then I need to be paying attention to this. I could, at least, save time on writing by giving GPT-3 some seed text and letting it write my blog posts. Right?

The text that emerged from the algorithm was not perfect. It needing some editing but “Cut out irrelevant stuff, write a conclusion, and boom – people don’t stand a chance of telling the difference.” Porr then takes the example of Buzzfeed, suggesting they can reduce their headcount if they use this new platform, suggesting there is space for “a new kind of media company. One that’s fast and lean. The writing team will be small, but experts at bending GPT-3 to their will.

It’s interesting that Porr chose to work with self help, admitting, “GPT-3 is great at creating beautiful language that touches emotion, not hard logic and rational thinking”. The reason for this is that a lot of online writing has a particular style. It is already programmed by the requirements and restrictions of search engine optimisation, or sharing on social media. The fact that GPT-3 works so well for these texts may be a reflection of how restrictive these styles are.

There are already tools that produce news articles without human intervention. Stories, particularly those based on reporting numeric data have already been automated. GPT-3 offers a means of producing more complicated text, which can fool casual readers.

The effect of a large amount of generated text appearing on social media platforms might produce problems beyond the need for quality control. We already have an avalanche of generated text on social media platforms, and this has not gone well. Twitter has never dealt properly with its bot problem, and the idea that these fake accounts are real has distorted politics for the last few years. Using GPT-3 to produce large amounts of political opinions makes it all the more important for journalists and politicians to understand how the web works.

Of course, all the above aside, Porr managed to release a set of blog posts that produced far more readers than I have acheived with this blog. But that assumes that all readers are equivalent. I’m writing for a smaller audience, but a more engaged one.

Do I believe that GPT-3 could produce literature? It could – but there is more to literature than language. Given some good samples, GPT-3 could churn out beat poetry, and it might even produce things that produce an emotional response. Some of the Beat writers such as Burroughs and Gysin were even involved in early experiments with computer texts, but these are remembered mostly as a curio. But a poem like Howl connects to other stories, just as Kerouac and Burroughs wrote meta-novel novels that resonated with their own lives. A computer might be able to produce poems, maybe even new Ginsberg poems – but there are things missing which means a computer would never produce a ‘body of literature’.

We might be willing to accept vacant life-advice from things that are alive, but for art we want some connection with the authors. Remember how angry people were when JT Leroy was revealed not to be a real writer, but a character? Or when it came out that James Frey’s book was a novel marketed as a memoir?

But, as far as the text goes – would I read a novel generated by a computer? I could imagine doing so. But that’s another story, for another post.

Zine submissions wanted: How Did You Become Invisible?

The London Invisibles Salon is collecting submissions for a zine responding to The Invisibles. In the 25 years since Grant Morrison’s comic was first published, it’s inspired and influenced people. We’re looking for personal responses to the book:

  • How has the book inspired you and changed your life?
  • What adventures and interesting people has it led you to?
  • How you feel about the comic now? Has it stood the test of time?
  • If someone discovers the book now, what should they do next?

We are looking for pieces of 100-500 words, on “How I became invisible” for a print zine that will be published in the Autumn. We will also be publishing a PDF/Kindle version that will be sent to all contributors.

We don’t want this zine to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. It’s an opportunity to show how some present day counter-cultures that connect back to the book.

Deadline – We need your submissions at invisiblesalon23@gmail.com by midnight UK time on Monday August 31st 2020. We are open to longer contributions too, but please get in touch with us first.

The zine will be published on November 23rd. Keep an eye on invisibles.orbific.com for the latest information. It is being produced by the Invisibles re-reading forum, and the London Invisibles Salon.

For more information, please email us at invisiblesalon23@gmail.com.

Introducing Rhymewave

Over the last couple of years, I’ve helped out with a project called Rhymewave, which finally launched a few weeks back. Rhymewave is an online rhyming dictionary, the brainchild of rapper Jon Clarke. It takes a different angle to a lot of rhyming dictionaries, helping to craft interesting multi-syllabic lines.

I’ve known Jon for a few years via Poets vs MCs, as well as seeing some stunning performances from him at Slipjam B and with his current band Sombras. He’s one of the most creative and surprising rappers I’ve seen. He also appeared with Professor Elemental and Dizraeli on one of my favourite hip-hop tracks, Graveyard Shifts, about the Bear Road Cemetery:

Jon first approached me as he was looking to put his rhyming dictionary into an app. I suggested that he take a different approach – apps are expensive and frustrating and it’s hard to get people to spend time with them. We decided to focus on the original aim of producing a website.

One of the reasons I thought Jon should put this up quickly and for free was to give lots of people the chance to use it. Looking at the site’s analytics, there are clusters of users in countries I’d never thought about in relation to hip-hop. Some of them are using the tool to help with pronunciation, but I hope they are also inspired to start writing lyrics.

The best thing about the project is that it is a true labour of love. Jon has been collecting words over years. The dictionary includes specifically local terms too (North Laine, Lewes Road), reflecting bits of Jon’s own life. As Jon said in an interview, ”A word can be a signpost to a world you never knew.”

One of the things I love about hip-hop is the connections it builds. An artwork from out of New York has spread across the world, mutating and shifting. I’m excited about what new, unexpected turns this project will take in the future.

The Peaks of Brighton

I’ve always been a little jealous of people with the time and location to collect Munros and Wainwrights. All the interesting climbs in Britain are some distance from the south coast. The chalk geology of Sussex does not lead to exciting peaks – the highest point is a mere 280m, at Blackdown. I mean, it’s better than Essex (highest point 147m) or Norfolk (103m), but it’s not much.

In November 2017, the Brighton Urban Ramblers did a City Three Peaks, but they went for steepest streets rather than highest points, picking Dyke Road, Preston Drove, and Southover Street. Still, there are high points in Sussex, which means they can be collected.

There is a list of Brighton Hills in Tim Carder’s Encylopedia of Brighton which is reproduced on My Brighton and Hove, although the heights are given in feet. Taking an arbitrary cut-off at 100m, the ‘peaks’ within the borough are:

  1. 645 Bullock Hill, Woodingdean
  2. 584 Hollingbury, Patcham
  3. 580 Holt Hill, Patcham
  4. 534 Falmer Hill, off Falmer Road
  5. 531 near Pudding Bag Wood, StanmerPark
  6. 510 Varncombe Hill, Patcham
  7. 509 The Bostle, Woodingdean
  8. 503 Heath Hill, Woodingdean
  9. 485 Tegdown Hill, Patcham
  10. 476 on Ditchling Road south of Old Boat Corner
  11. 463 Race Hill, by Bear Road
  12. 435 Scare Hill, Patcham
  13. 430 in Stanmer Great Wood
  14. 430 Red Hill, Westdene
  15. 427 Sweet Hill, Patcham
  16. 417 Race Hill, by the Race Stands
  17. 417 Telscombe Tye, Saltdean
  18. 411 at Balsdean Reservoir
  19. 410 Ewebottom Hill, Patcham
  20. 398 High Hill, Balsdean
  21. 396 Whitehawk Hill, Brighton
  22. 387 Coney Hill, Westdene
  23. 367 Mount Pleasant, Woodingdean
  24. 355 on Dyke Road Avenue, near Dyke Road Place
  25. 352 Red Hill, Roedean
  26. 334 Tenant Hill, Saltdean

That is a lot of hills. I decided that a better starting point would be the trig pillars, since they should have good views and account for Topographic prominence. There is an excellent database of trigpoints at trigpointing.uk, which includes all the trig points around Brighton. Some of these are listed as destroyed, but are still useful target locations. Their catalogue of Brighton trig points includes 6 pillars:

I’m going to take this as the starting point for my ‘Brighton Peak bagging’, although it makes sense to expand this into the wider Brighton Downs – using the arbitrary definition of the area covered by Dave Bang’s book A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs. This would expand the area to cover Beeding Hill through to Lewes, also including the north slope of Clayton Hill and Ditchling Beacon. So far, I’ve done one of the trig points, now I just need to divide the others into a few sensible routes.

Anyone interested in joining me for a session of Brighton peak-bagging?

Retreat, Days 38-40

  • The birdsong seems so loud these days. I’m particularly noticing it in zoom calls. Zoom does some fairly clever things with audio, and I wonder if this is a side-effect?
  • The world continues to be strange. This week I received a £25 rebate on my car insurance as so few people are claiming. It’s very welcome, but it’s odd.
  • This month, the price of oil turned negative. Vice had a couple of good articles on this: a good explainer, and a discussion of whether buying an oil tanker to take advantage of this would work. It’s a fascinating story, showing how the futures market does indeed involve actual real things – which traders came very close to taking possession of.
  • A beautiful quote from a recent Rebecca Solnit article: The philosopher-mystic Simone Weil once wrote to a faraway friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”
  • Remember the banana bread era? An age of innocence, when we still thought lockdown was going to be like a wet half-term in an Enid Blyton book” – Jess Cartner-Morley
  • One of the local hairdressers seems to have transformed into a greengrocers. A sign of the times, but I welcome having more options for fresh food.
  • Another sign of ingenuity – on a conference call this week, a colleague showed us their system of mirrors, placed in the garden to angle sunlight into their office.
  • Nick Caves transformation into spiritual leader continues with this lovely recent piece of writing on prayer: A Prayer to Who?
  • Busy day today, including running a workshop. Off to bed now to get a good night’s sleep, ready for tomorrow’s virtual session with Slow Yoga Club.

Retreat, Day 6: The Happening

There is a stunning sequence in the middle of M. Night Shyamalan’s otherwise disappointing film, The Happening. A family are fleeing an horrific end-of-the-world scenario and seek shelter at a remote farmhouse. The owner says she is happy to offer hospitality, but refuses to be told anything about what is taking place. It’s strange and disturbing to see the urgency of the film paused by the interlude, and this has stuck with me ever since.

Last night, I stayed in a remote shepherd’s hut. I’d told the hosts I was social distancing, which they were fine with, and I have avoided being too close to anyone while hiking. I’ve skipped the news, and will catch up on Monday night (although I asked a friend to tell me if there was anything I needed to know). It’s been good to have this interlude.

My walk home was lovely, and far more relaxed than yesterday’s stomp across the downs. Walking on the promenade, it seemed like a normal summer’s day, lots of people out strolling. I guess a lot of people are not so into social distancing.

I arrived home, had a bath, and have been relaxing otherwise. I followed Ben Graham’s recommendation and watched the first couple of episodes of Britannia. I’ve done some writing, and mostly been disconnected from the networks. I now have a good list of activities planned, including learning Mill’s Mess. I originally took up juggling 26 years ago so I could do that trick, but never got round to it.

It’s been good not to think too much about events, but there are still shocks when I think of the enormity of what’s happening. I guess the coronavirus is one of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, impossible to hold in mind in its entirety. As overwhelming as this is, I want to maintain focus on my life, and to make that as rich as possible.

Today was, of course, Mother’s Day, and it’s been bittersweer. We’d originally planned to take my Mum for a pub lunch. This was downgraded to a dinner at my sister’s. On Monday, I asked my sister if she thought I should cancel given the current situation, but we decided to hold off a decision. By Tuesday it was obvious that my parents are in strict isolation for the foreseeable future. They’re taking their seclusion very well, but it must be difficult. Sorry I couldn’t be there today, Mum.

No plank today, again, because I walked 90,000 steps this weekend. Back to planks tomorrow though.

Book launch: Famous for 15 People

On March 15th 2018, I’m holding a Brighton launch for my ebook, Famous for 15 People. It takes place at Brighton’s Regency Town House, and features performances from me, Rosy Carrick and Chris Parkinson. Tickets are available online and cost a mere £4. There’s even a bar at the venue.

Many of the stories had their origin on the Sussex university creative writing MA, where I first met Chris and Rosy. I’ll perform a couple of regular pieces, as well as some multi-media performances that I’ve only done once before. There will also be some microfictions; and I’m going to talk a little about why ebooks are so exciting as a way for people to share their writing.

I describe Famous… as a ‘mixtape’. It contains short stories (some very short!) and non-fiction written over the last ten years. The title comes from a quote from the artist Momus that I love. I’m pleased to have made a home for all these stories.

The book actually came out in May last year, but I got distracted by work and other events, so the launch never happened. I am the worst self-promoter ever – as you can also tell by the fact I’ve got multimedia performances I loved that have only been performed once.

Do come! Tickets are £4, and the book can be downloaded from Amazon. And if you do get a copy from Amazon, please leave a review!