bottom wibbles
a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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charles minard diagramIt’s been on my mind a lot recently that an equally valid way to study, or to plot, History – if we are really interested in the data of it, as well as its woollier qualities – is to frame it not in terms of years or populations or politics or trading levels, but in terms of energy. Beneath all of these vectors which historians study, this is really the basal unit; not the year, or the currency, or manpower, or the dollar or the groat, but the Calorie. It might save a lot of arguments, and conference expenses, and samovars of cooling coffee on trestle tables, if we can agree that all human endeavour, social interactions, religious movements, massacres, migrations – from the national to the individual, from the great sweep to the tiny gesture – can be formulated in terms of the energy required to warm a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.

I was never a good physics student at school. In fact, my teacher actively disliked me, as he thought that I was somehow being willfully incompetent in his classes, rather than suffering from a simpler, garden variety of incompetence. However, I still remember the principle of the conservation of energy, mainly because it didn’t require me to memorise any equations. Energy in the universe cannot be destroyed, but only transferred into another form. It’s disquieting, the more and more I think about it, how anything that I learnt in my history classes at school, and in my work since, could be described by such a transfer, even if it cannot be precisely measured as such. The most obvious example that springs to mind is the adage ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and immediately Charles Minard’s famous carte figurative springs to mind, showing the strength of Napoleon’s army diminishing as it marched to (and, barely, from) Moscow in 1812 and 1813. It’s almost a direct visual representation of this principle; as they move across Eastern Europe, you can practically see the French soldiers’ thermodynamics, the numbers and rates stacked against them. They’re expending heat into the cold Russian air, leaking warmth as surely as blood from their mottled legs, far more quickly than they can intake it from salted pork or, towards the end, conifer resin.

It disquiets me further and further to find more and more examples, and how I cannot think of one historical arc, system, migration or change that does not fit the mold. I suppose I’m being bloody-minded, but why not this, rather than anything else? I see it in the pursuit of cholesterol out of Africa, hundreds of thousands of years ago; in the sickening radiation of the Roman Empire’s trade networks; the lunches hurriedly imbibed in the months before the Peterloo Massacre; in the burning of witches at Würzburg. Why can’t we ask where that energy, those Joules, have gone, after they converted and dissipated up into the open Bavarian air, and where else they have been used since?

“I should not have been surprised by Constable or Rubens. This is what the great artists manage. They flatter us, by observing better than others and then speaking to each of us as individuals and in language that we worry we may be the only ones left caring for.”

Tristan Gooley, How To Read Water

Sticking my head out from the bedroom window every morning, currently; as I’ve isolated that sensation-moment, when the rods and cones in my eyes first rinse together on the daylight and the wind, as the single best element of camping, and one that I can replicate every day if I want. Yesterday I heard the first woodpeckers of the year, through the closest thing they have to a song. That rapid percussion on the tree trunks of the valley walls is like the sound of a dawn doorbell, and all that could imply, with its harsher wavelengths and connotations trimmed away. There were two drilling a second or so apart, one slightly north of the house up the valley and the other slightly south. They rested at each other’s on-beat, though I have no reason to think it was any form of communication; just one of those happy, human-scale emergences that means absolutely nothing, and yet which I cannot – actually, synaptically cannot – ignore.

I have recently learned that a woodpecker, when not using its long, genuflecting tongue, hanks it tightly around and around its own skull to cushion it against the impact of the drilling. In the timbre of these two persisting, I could hear the timbers; one must have been pecking at a thinner, or deader, trunk than the other, as the tone was slightly higher. I had been asleep when they had started, so there was no way of telling who had begun, and whether I should be hearing this exchange as high low high low high low or low high low high low high. I managed to isolate each configuration, and hear them independently, and they sounded like two quite different sorts of conversation; one a mournful confirmation of some very bad news, so bad that the receiver has to ask, again and again, if it is true; and the other an argument, neverending, each party refusing to listen to the other; like those occasional, screaming, three-in-the-morning exchanges between the couple who live three doors down from us.

A handy little driblet of JQuery and CSS here: on a few of my websites, I have .scrollableelements with more information than can fit within a single browser height, but which need to scroll independently of the page’s main content. Often, just setting the overflow to scroll, and using the browser’s default scrollbar, will look clunky, and be unnecessary; so I’ve been trying to find a slightly neater way of showing both that the element is scrollable (or, that there is more information available that I do not want the user to miss) and to give some indication of where, in that screed, the user is currently located.

The method I’ve settled on is a little indicator just underneath the scroll – a #downarrow, for example – which shows that there is more to read, but which disappears when you reach the bottom of the element. This is easily done in JQuery by checking, every time the user scrolls that element, the current bottom edge of the element in pixels (scrollTop() + innerHeight) against the total scrollHeight of the element. The resulting CSS animation makes the disappearance a little smoother and plainer than an abrupt vanishing, which can often look like a bug. I found that, for some reason, just checking against the scrollHeight on its own didn’t work – I could never scroll the element all the way to its full, pixel-perfect bottom, and so the disappearance code never ran. Adding the – 5 seemed to solve this, meaning that the arrow disappears just before you reach the bottom of the scrollable area.

I have no idea if this performs well. I haven’t noticed any bottlenecks in the browser performance; I imagine because the code only runs when the element is scrolled. I also know that I’m inviting the Golden Invective of web development – the one that lashes against the removal of functionality the sake of for aesthetics – but I’ve yet to have anybody tell me that it’s awkward, or that they don’t understand it, or that they need to plot exactly where they are in their reading. By the same token, I wouldn’t recommend this method for lengthy passages of text.


//JQuery
$(document).ready(function() {
$(".scrollableelement").bind('scroll', function () {
if ($(this).scrollTop() + $(this).innerHeight() >= $(this)[0].scrollHeight - 5) {
$('#downarrow').removeClass('visible').addClass('invisible');
} else {
$('#downarrow').removeClass('invisible').addClass('visible');
}
});
});


/* CSS */
.visible {
animation-name: fadein;
animation-duration: 0.3s;
opacity: 1;
}
.invisible {
animation-name: fadeout;
animation-duration: 0.3s;
opacity: 0;
pointer-events: none;
}
@keyframes fadein {
0% {
opacity: 0;
}
100% {
opacity: 1;
}
}
@keyframes fadeout {
0% {
opacity: 1;
}
100% {
opacity: 0;
}
}

“The only thing that bound us together was this belief: in every other country they eat unspeakable food; worship gods more see-through than glass; string together only the most meaningless syllables, like goo-goo-goo-goo-goo-goo-goo; are warlike but not noble; do not help the dead cross in the proper boats; do not send the correct incense up to the wide blue nostrils; crawl with whatever crawls; do not love their children, not the way we do; bare the most tempting body parts and cover the most mundane; cup their penises to protect them from supernatural forces; their poetry is piss; they do not respect the moon; slice the little faces of our familiars into the stewpot.”

Patricia Lockwood, The Communal Mind

list of English folk beings

The Denham Tracts, James Hardy (eds.), The Folklore Society, 1895, vol. 2, pp. 76-80.

I had to do some thinking, in a professional sense, yesterday: and these days (I’m not sure when the turn came) that requires its own calendar notification. I gave myself two hours, a scrap of folded paper, and the five miles along the craning turn of Swansea Bay; as far from the town centre to Mumbles and back as I could make it.

As I had some new walking boots to train to my feet, I went out beyond the strandline to the tidal mud, which allowed me to cut a straight hypotenuse rather than following the shaking curve of the Oystermouth Road at the edge of the beach. The sound of the road came back to me weirdly off the water. A man with a metal detector, and a dog that (I’m sorry, it did) looked like a spade, like it might be called Spade, or Cutter, were perusing divots of cut sand closer to the waves. The mud and sediment here, for a good mile stretch, is starting to compact into pavements of stone, though the sea is pulling away hanks of it as quick as it can harden. A little egret went about the rockpools, stepping over its own legs and expending fruitless calories to stay three hundred yards ahead of me at all times. I thought my new boots were leaking cold water, but it was right at the edge of the sensation: I think it was heat I was feeling, the first volcanism of new blisters.

For the first time I noticed how many thousands of lugworm casts there were, stretching away from me, and got something like the willies at how many were working, touching themselves, displacing, beneath me. I think I could hear them, in the way you can hear barnacles seemingly gasping for air in their millions on a rock. I reached the Clyne River, were it braids and then undoes itself over the sand coming out of the conifer channels at Blackpill, and found it too deep to cross, even in my new boots. The bridge was back up by the road, and it was unacceptable to me to go close to it, and to hear it. So I went back to the County Hall, and climbed its concrete, amphitheatre breakwater back into the town.


Bill Marsh, Landscapes, 2002

The relationship between remembering and forgetting is, paradoxically, related to the relationship between memorials and ruins. Novelist Robert Musil published an essay on ‘Monuments’ in 1936, noting how much of his native city of Vienna was crowded with memorials to soldiers, statesmen and illustrious figures, forgotten ever after. ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,’ he wrote. Ruins, by contrast, are a reagent of memory, their incomplete, fractured elements demanding to be visualised or imagined whole again. Ruins invoke empathy and the free play of historical query, where memorials close the lid firmly and decisively on the past.

Ken Worpole, The New English Landscape

rhossili and worms head, gower

This late/early winter, in lieu of having much else to do, I’ve been trying to become a better naturalist. It may seem an odd time of year to be out looking for plants and animals, but it’s ideal for the beginner. With many animals hibernating, most of the insects dead, underground or in torpor, and the perennial plants stripped of anything bolshy or distracting, there’s far less room for mistake or misidentification. When you don’t yet know what it is you are looking for, winter in Britain presents a bit of a sandpit for your early efforts: all simple lines, quiet spaces and the barest essentials to play with. Of course, winter in Britain is not dead, or inactive, or silent, if you have an experienced eye; but I don’t, and pretending that there are only about six species of identifiable tree, bird and mammal has its utility in getting me going. It reminds me of learning the alphabet at school, where the letters were revealed to us in packs of three, and we had a chance to get to know them properly before anything was complicated further.

Out I go, then: with the aid of the Collins Fungi Guide; the Biodiversity Information Service‘s invaluable winter identification courses held in Brecon; a pair of underlubricated Boots binoculars; and a naturalist girlfriend who already elongates any walk into a multi-stage, bent-backed, cooing affair, fawning happily over stinkhorn fungus in the way other people treat with small dogs and children; I’m starting to feel like I am getting Britain in winter under my belt.

Of all the things in the world, it reminds me of when I was doing work experience for a law firm in the middle of London. This involved very little clerical work, and rather a lot of errands: mostly, I seem to remember, taking sealed packages of x-rays between multiple London hospitals on behalf of one of the senior partners, who (judging by his face when I returned with a fresh manila folder at five o’clock each day) increasingly disliked the news he was receiving. I was dispensed into London, with a Zones 1-6 travelcard, for seven hours or so a day; spending most of that time travelling along Tube lines, and through stations, that I had barely even heard of, despite living my entire life to date in south London. I kept coming up staircases and escalators out onto streets that I did not recognise, and without any landmarks to guide me, before popping back down into the darkness only to emerge again at some other isolated waypoint; like a submarine without sonar, trying to make its way through an icepack. Slowly, however, I started to take the Tube less, walking most of the way between my stops; and gradually in this way I began to knit London together. This continues even today, when I return to the city for work, or to visit friends; last week, as it was so unseasonably balmy, I decided to walk from Charing Cross to Shoreditch for a meeting, cutting a long axis through Holborn, Chancery Lane and Hatton Garden, Farringdon, the Barbican, behind Old Street where I used to work, through Bunhill Fields Cemetery. It’s nice to start to feel the whole rhizome of London, the whole interwoven tuber of it, rather than diving in between its Balkans. Similarly, I’m starting to feel that the free-floating survivals of outdoor knowledge that have remained from my childhood – what my grandmother told me about dockleaves, songs from primary school about the robin and the holly, Cub Scout lectures about hoarfrost – is starting to coagulate, to grow, and form a (still quite threadbare) mat of associations. When you go at these things willingly, and every day, no piece of knowledge is divorced from any other; you make lashings between ideas, and facts, and impressions, battening it all down, gluing it into serviceable place.

It also gets a lot quicker, as you go: where some acts of identification used to be a real labour to perform, now they can be passed over unconsciously, so well-set is the knowledge they require; and they can form stepping stones, and assumed foundations, for more complicated activities. I’m starting to get to know the jizz (and there really isn’t, unfortunately, a better word for it) of not just certain birds, but trees and moss and water and geology and tracks and musk, so that I can install them into my first impressions of a new environment almost without thinking. Sitting in my parent’s back garden last weekend, surrounded by bare-limbed trees (in strange combination with a February heatwave in the high twenties), I could tell from the steel-blue, hairless tinge of the long trunks, with a gestalt airiness about the lower halves that I didn’t exactly look at, but just sort of incorporated, that the woodland was mostly beech, with some ash. I can now spot that tree’s dog-nose-black-and-wet buds from hundreds of metres away, especially against a pale sky, where their regular spacing on the twig have the unmistakably made look of a television aerial. At the moment, the catkins on the hazels are long and dusky, and peering into any wood I don’t even need to see a hazel tree directly, on its own (as in a reference book) to know what it is, and that it is there. Just by being present in the general tumble of things, they lend the airs of the wood a quality, finely chopping the green light like herb, creating patches of gauzy bokeh here and there; and a vertical noisiness, indistinct, that makes you think of indistinct things, like severity and looming; all lent by the unseen, but sensed, close-packed staves of a hazel coppice somewhere in front of you. Unfortunately I’m avoiding hazel at the moment, as I have found them slightly revolting ever since my girlfriend, who spent several months in Belize working at a primate sanctuary a few years ago, told me that the catkins reminded her of how the spider monkeys would while away the afternoons in their cages, twirling their dangling, velveted clitorises between their sofa-leather fingers.

It’s lending a real joy to a time of year that otherwise seems to plod along for far longer than it has any right to. Today, I saw my first clutch of turnstones, picking for sandfly and silverfish between the concrete slabs of the Tawe Barrage here in Swansea. It took my entire lunchbreak to pull myself away from them. However, despite all this I am finding that even with the slightest bit of knowledge, and interest, in nature, the act of going for a walk can never be relaxing again. Like a literary agent who struggles to read for pleasure, I’m starting to notice that when out and about I’m a bit feverish, every sensor wired and fused to find those things that I do know, and to notice those things that I do not. My deepest brain is both enjoying the patterns that it identifies, and churning them over and over, testing them and seeking to expand them, struggling to remember them so that they can be noted down and drawn up when I get home. I’m forever straining to identify that bird I just heard, or to find scarlet elfcap in the bark litter, or wondering why this stand of alder is seemingly growing so far from any water. Despite being deeply pleasurable, I do sometimes find myself wishing that I could go back to complete ignorance, even if only for a day. I sometimes think about the times when I didn’t know anything, didn’t try to know anything, and was content in it: when the only bird that made itself known to me was the smoker’s cough of a wood pigeon; when the different barks and birdsongs and contours and lichens could form an indistinguishable deep-pile for my thoughts, rather than occupying them entirely in their distinguishability. I used to tell myself that the birds sang, and that I was there, and that was sufficient, and I went on; now, I know that the robin only sings low in the tree, and that they fight with the tits for dominance; that as I move through the wood the birds are not singing for me, to chorus my own idling; that with even an amateur eye you can see them flinging off, to the next tree, away from me always, leaving an ovoid gap in the birdsong; and that it is only after I have passed on that the whole, unbelievable, social network starts up again.

max ernst der wald

Max Ernst, Forest and Dove

“Ticket to Ride is essentially about connecting points on a graph. All games are ultimately abstract simulations, although sometimes the thing simulated is itself abstract. Computer gaming has been going in two primary directions as of late: in action games, towards greater simulation of reality (or projected reality), and in casual and role-playing games, towards lip-service to realism while grafting on increasingly arbitrary rule systems.

In the first case this has produced first-person shooters with complicated physics systems, and in the second, quest adventures where the “fighting” is done with unusual mechanisms, such as a Tetris-like puzzle game. The first goal is obviously a dead-end in the long run (where do we go after simulating reality is done well enough, or proves impossible to advance?), but the second could be seen as a sign of design decadence. Theoretically the act of playing Tetris, or a collectable card game, or Tower Defense, is no further removed from the physical act of combat as choosing options from a menu, but practically something is lost as game systems become ever more abstract.”

John Harris, Game Design Essentials: 20 Real World Games

unica zurn painting

Untitled, Unica Zürn, 1960s

Books & Computational Art in 2018

There was a best-archived segment of my life when I got unhealthily – pathologically – interested in the concept of the ‘quantified self’, after reading Harper Reed‘s interview with The Setup. For somebody like me, it was an unfathomably stupid pursuit: poring over datasets about the statistics of my everyday life, and using those to endlessly tweak, trim and rework the jalopied beach buggy which is my continuing existence. For somebody with OCD, such an approach to self-knowledge is a bit of a petrol fire. However there are some activities around the peripheries of QS, ways to reflect on one’s own habits rather than just self-surveil, that I’ve found interesting and, in some non-specific way, helpful.

One of these was to keep a list of all the books and works of computational art that I encounter for pleasure in a year. To keep it manageable and enjoyable, rather than a chore, I haven’t included films, TV programs, works of visual art, reading for my PhD or my fortnightly issues of the LRB and Private Eye. It can’t, therefore, really be called a ‘media diet’ like Jason Kottke’s annual posts. I’ve never really liked references to consumption, digestion, mastication etc. when talking about art. Even the word ‘media’ makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. We’ve got a glut of access to art in the West, as with food, but I’m not sure the correct response to that is to try and reduce that art to its micro-nutrients. I’ve re-read certain authors this past year purely because they made me feel better, indistinctly, in that moment, rather than because I thought there was still some fibrous goodness that I could still strip from it. Like clean eating, clean reading becomes another form of virtue-signalling which really eclipses the point of reading in the first place. It’s also a metaphor that has little bearing on what ‘consuming’ media is actually like, psychologically. I’m not sure we have a passage in our bodies – or our minds – that can stretch wide enough to accommodate the things we read, and scour them of some commonly-defined ‘good’ that they might do us. It’s far messier – more eruptive – than all of that.

Nature Cure, Richard Mabey

This book, in which a celebrated nature writer responds to his flattening through depression by slipping into the loft of a house on the flatten marches of Norfolk, pulled me back to other, similar retreats in my own life: to small lodgings, to sublet flats, to bed. It certainly helped waft me across the threshold of last year, and is still sitting next to my bed: one of those books that can be read in doses and by the pipette, before sleep, to help me go out soundly.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware & Software, Charles Pelzold

I felt that I was just about at the right level of competency with computers – at the actual machine layer – to take a crack at this book last year. It explains how a modern computer works from first principles (as in, subatomic principles) using the idea of ‘code’, a method of isomorphic communication, as a framing device. It reminded me of Jospeh Weizenbaum’s explanation of how a Turing Machine works, using coloured beads on strips of paper, in Computer Power and Human Reason. I think that I understood about 60% of it, corresponding to the first 60% of its length; after this, it got extremely technical, and more about applied mechanics than theory. I imagine that a lot of artists working with computers might consider it overkill, or a waste of their limited time, to learn how a computer works on quite such a fundamental level. They might see it as similar to a painter learning the physics of mastics and substrates. To me it’s not a simple technical understanding, too microscopic for consideration, and so easily passed over. If making art with computers involves aestheticising functionality, as well as the appearance, of possible worlds, it seems fairly important to have at least a passing familiarity with the kinds of functionality – and indeed the kinds of worlds – that these increasingly-black boxes are capable of. I used a condensed version of this book’s lessons as part of my RCA class last year, and was surprised at how many young artists on the Digital Direction MA had no idea what ‘computation’ was, in an applicable sense – and how many of them wanted to know.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle In The Dark, Carl Sagan

I can’t decide whether this book is a celebration of the potential of the human imagination (despite itself) or a warning against it. I don’t agree with all of Sagan’s conclusions about religion and superstition, but his warnings about their dangers are written with customary style and precision; whenever I read his prose I unavoidably hear his voice dancing at the edge of my hearing, like a lawnmower in some distant garden on a Sunday morning.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Noah Yuval Harari

I read this after reading Harari’s Sapiens on Christmas Day, immediately after my Dad unwrapped it; I have this tendency to buy people books and then try to finishing reading them myself before the event that prompted the gift is over. It’s not a good tendency. I feel that Sapiens was a far superior book: tighter, more anecdote and sound evidence, less repetitious. Homo Deus is more pontification than exploration, and a lot of the material is more or less cribbed directly from the earlier book. His predictions for the future of humanity, while as rigorous as speculation gets, don’t offer much to advance current futurist thought, aside from the admittedly-interesting idea that human-originated ‘data’ will become confluent with ‘information’ at the level of matter, as the boundaries between biological and electro-digital computation continue to blur.

Stop Thinking, Start Living, Richard Carlson

Contains the equivalent of about 600 words of worthwhile information in the entire book: but they were 600 words which, at that time of year and in that particular place, I dearly needed to read.

Fine Just The Way It Is, Annie Proulx

I find Annie Proulx consistently a bit devastating: though I love her writing, I’ve had to parcel her out across my adulthood (Postcards, then the collection with Brokeback Mountain in it, and I still haven’t touched The Shipping News) because in every bloody piece of work she creates sentences (in a way that reminds me of John Cheever or Vonnegut) that back her characters into some kind of yawning void, just by doing something as simple as looking at a coffee cup or kicking up dust. With this collection, I find that nothing has changed: I’m just as afraid to read the next sentence, unsure of how many years will pass within its syntax, and how totally a character’s entire life will be folded into it; like a bookmark, or the crooks of an accordion.

The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden

This was the second time that I had played The Beginner’s Guide, and I came back to it because of the easy, confident pleasure with which it enacts its storytelling. Unlike The Stanley Parable, Wreden’s first work (which I liked for different reasons), the Guide is a much more passive experience, something which asks little of me other than to traverse space in order to reveal its rhetoric, and uses voiceover to overcome some of the narrative issues that other highly-linear interactive works bump into on a regular basis. As Robert Yang points out, it is also a love letter to a certain set of technologies and tools; popular for a window of five years or so, 2004-2009 perhaps, which coincided with my mid-to-late teens, and which I remember mostly through the skein of one of their interfaces. Even though it is (most likely) fictional, I really would like to see its documentarian approach applied to something journalistic.

Mad Girl, Bryony Gordon

The Happy Countryman, H.E. Bates
Down By The River, H.E. Bates
Oh! To Be In England, H.E. Bates
When The Green Woods Laugh, H.E. Bates

I ended up reading (and watching) a lot of H.E. Bates by accident this past year; he just kept popping up in Oxfam, or on my partner’s Audible account, or winking out from our dwindling stack of DVDs. I’m resisting the temptation to comparing these appearance to a Green Man peering out from his leaves, or Puck or Pan materialising from the roots of trees. It’s too easy to make Bates bucolic, or Dionysian: every time I go back to him, I am reminded that beneath this sylvan reputation he is, by any age’s standards, a very dirty old bastard.

The BBC dramatisation of The Darling Buds of May, where I first discovered the Larkin family, actually takes off a lot of the books’ (and Bates’) sharper edges: the scene in When The Green Woods Laugh where Mrs. Jerebohm nearly falls out of the boat on the lake has a much darker-green streak running through it in the book than on the television; much of the predatory detail of Mr. Larkin’s actions that day are excised, and David Jason plays the innocent, bacchanal, oakwood Commoner in the mahogany courtroom with far more conviction than the character deserves. I always get the impression from the books, and the television programs, that Bates is desperate for the Larkin’s pocket dimension, their Laputa-Kent, to remain sacrosanct no matter which elements of the real world intrude. It goes beyond escapism into a sort of aggressive isolationism. I think it’s because even Bates knows that the world that he creates can only ever be mythic. It cannot be accidental that Pop has a touch of the Bombadils about him, a sort of avuncular omnipotence over all living things when within the borders of Home Farm that, itself, borders of the godlike. Anybody who comes and proposes, or even represents, some lifestyle different from that of the Larkins’, is changed irrevocably to fit the laws of this private world: and if they cannot change, they are banished. This doesn’t stop me loving Bates’ work, or envying the Larkin’s lives, or wishing that world, fervently, subconsciously, into being every time I go back to it. They have a similar effect on me to Miyazaki’s films: for a day or two after I encounter them, these stories make me stand up straighter, eat with more gusto, try and see the bluebells in the woods a little more presently. That sense always fades, however, and the cracks in the laws of Bates’ reality – the realities of jealousy, income tax, globalisation, women – become wider and wider. In comparison, Bates’ works of natural history stand simply, as beautiful prose about the landscapes that a thoughtful man loves – with no farmer’s daughters, or compliant spinsters, to distract him.

Hurt Me Plenty, Robert Yang
Stick Shift, Robert Yang
Succulent, Robert Yang
No Stars, Only Constellations, Robert Yang

I think one of the things that I find most interesting about Robert Yang’s works is how he belies the old indie myth that technological prowess is inversely proportional to artistic vision. In his work, and as an artist, Yang grapples with some fairly esoteric topics, even within the avant-garde of the form: sex, consent, gay social history. Yet reading his blog you encounter a man who is entranced by graphical fidelity, the gubbins of the IDEs that he uses, and who is as likely to write paeans to raycasting and the Source engine as he is to the continuing injustices of homophobic oppression in the United States. The two sides of his work are not irreconcilable, and in fact each informs the other. Technology is not something heartless, or soulless, to be obscured in the artistic process – it is the product of human intent and care, suffused with its own meaning, and that meaning becomes part of the stories that Yang tells – stories of faithfully-rendered chest hair, mesh deformation on curled lips, the normal maps of sweat and spit.

Alien Afterlife and Uncle Sad Bedroom, Jeremy Couillard

Affluenza, Oliver James

A systematic deconstruction of the riper, curling edges of late-era capitalism by British psychologist Oliver James. It’s interesting to note how much work like James’ has informed my early adulthood thinking, purely because of how obvious, bordering on trite, some of his advice was; which is not to bash it, objectively. While it hasn’t cured the casserole of hyperactivity, utopianism and fear that accompanies my Amazon shopping, it has certainly made me feel worse about it.

The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer

I would recommend that anybody trying to read this book, rather than read about this book, not attempt it in one go. Greer’s prose is even denser than mine, and the ideas that she is espousing are complex, historically-contextual and sometimes difficult to follow for more than a chapter at a time. The Female Eunuch stands as a reminder that Greer has never been embraced by mainstream feminism: her ideas lead to too many uncomfortable places, and her conception of the sisterhood never quite fits (for some). This book, with its complete deconstruction of the institution of marriage, and the nuclear family, illustrates how difficult it is to squeeze Greer into some of the more well-known progressive narratives. At the same time, the foundational ideas that she helped to promote are there in full view, and depressingly no less necessary to hear.

Virginia, Variable State

Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer

I wonder if one of the main grievances that people have with games that are light on choice, systemics, and mechanics – works like the minimally-interactive Kentucky Route Zero – is that they don’t quite know how to sit. Helen Katz has this concept of lean forward and lean back media, which is really a theory of interactivity and explicit engagement. Zeroslow cinema. Perhaps in its detractors there’s something physiological going on: some restlessness in the body as it is asked to move back and forth between watching and doing at unpredictable intervals, never quite ‘at rest’ or ‘at play’. Maybe it’s like the night shift operator at a nuclear power plant, where most of the plant’s functionality is automated, but there are still a few switches and dials that need a human touch: unpredictable enough that the shift can’t just be slept away. I felt a little bit of this, and not just with Zero: perhaps if I played it on the settee, rather than bolt upright in a chair on my laptop, my brain might stop fidgeting quite so much, and thinking that it was required to act all the time.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks

A Passage To India, E.M. Forster

I read this in the heat of Southern Spain in August, which is much a dryer heat that India: but the setting certainly helped me to get into the spirit of this utterly extraordinary book. There’s a lot of mornings in A Passage To India, and evenings, perhaps because they are the only time of day when the plot can be bothered to move. Subsequently, and unconsciously, I mainly read this before breakfast and after dinner; very particular times, where the honeysuckle smells a very particular smell, and the birds move more urgently, and everything seems both exhausted and ready to go. Like Proulx, Forster has these methods of splicing in something transformative with the minute, undimmed descriptions of mosques, hill stations, shimmering cups of tea, and cool caves.

A Walk In The Woods, Bill Bryson

A re-read, taking an afternoon and an hour, precisely because it was on the bookshelf of the house in Spain in which we were staying; and because Bryson is quick to read, and this book is one of his best. Katz was a little too close for comfort, and reminded me of my own early attempts at long-distance walking, when my thighs rubbed so consistently together I could have let the matches and firesteel at home.

Crash, Michael Lewis

I know that some people like Lewis’ heavily narrative, human-driven takes on the complexities of the business world. It was certainly refreshing to have an account on the Greek debt crisis begin in the dark cells of an Orthodox monastery. Sometimes, however, I think Lewis gets a bit too enamoured with the personalities and processes on which he is reporting. This means that sometimes important details are dashed over with a sort of gonzo zeal, and at other times excruciating attention is paid to something esoteric which belies Lewis’ evident belief that the crux of these events are the people that are embroiled in them.

A Natural History of the Hedgerow, John Wright

At Home, Bill Bryson

Another example of my bad habit: a birthday present for my partner, that I knew I could snaffle in the space of a week before she wanted to dive in. Unfortunately I’m a fairly… handsy reader, and At Home is a long book. I first read it on my Mum’s Kindle, and by the time I had finished reading this edition it was curling up at the edges like an old sandwich, and it was a real struggle not to deface it with my marginalia. It would have been a step too far: the codical equivalent of weeing on the toilet seat.

Oxenfree, Night School Studio

Monument Valley, ustwo Games

In late September I had a friend to visit, and we hiked up the bracken-hairy back of the Beacons plateau; to Corm Du, to Pen y Fan, across limestone pavement punched with rain; and then we ate macaroni cheese, and drank whiskey quicker than it could evaporate, and played this on his iPad while we killed time until he had to catch his train back to London. It’s got the ruins fetish thing going on that has always been a part of the grammar of games, but its silence, its simple, haptic pleasures and its abstractions were extremely relaxing to spend some time with.

The Bog People, P.V. Glob

Slade House, David Mitchell

I was at that point in the year where I wanted to read something that wasn’t self-improving, that wasn’t exploratory; that drove itself forward, on rails preferably, and just let me look at the scenery. This little ghost train of a book provided that. I only ever remember reading this in bed, and it was all over in a matter of days. I haven’t read The Bone Clocks, to which this is a slim companion; I haven’t broached Cloud Atlas or any other of Mitchell’s books. I knew that this contained references to other characters, timelines, and novels of his, as do all his books, but it didn’t seem to matter. As with so many of these sorts of horror works (whether film, book or other) the best part was the Golden First Third: those hundred pages where all the unsettling little promises are made, the mysteries opened, and their resolution seems very far away indeed. As things progress, and certain threads start to be resolved, however, it unravels slightly: the characters pass by too quickly, either Mary Sues or so flawed as to be practically in two pieces; the patterns of the chapters, year on year, start to become a little jarring; the mysteries resolve themselves into more mysteries which somehow also feel overly familiar. I might try The Bone Clocks this year, and see if I get on better with it.

A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, Ruby Wax

Quiet, Susan Cain

I had been meaning to read Cain’s book for some time, and ended up listening to an audiobook version; I listened to it while cooking, and occasionally while settling down to sleep. This meant that I often went roughshod over sections of a book, missing them entirely. Given how often I fell asleep while listening to this, or clattered hot pans over the top of it, a new type of fugue emerged, and I’ve no idea how much of Cain’s slow and patient voice I missed. Her central message, however, about the extent of introversion in Western society and its relative lack of regard, was one which I had been expecting, though elements of it surprised me. Cain’s case studies of introverts, and dissection of their qualities, made me realise that I was much less introverted than I had always imagined myself to be.

The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

I find Gladwell’s prose… not exactly heavy-going, but rather close to its opposite. It’s so smoothed of anything controversial, lexically, that I find it hard to imbibe his main points; especially when, as in the case of the Tipping Point, they are so abstract as to be difficult to grasp at all. This is despite his rather extensive reliance on storytelling as a way to introduce lay readers to his thinking, even if a lot of people find that his points border on the reductive, often relying on a single, or a handful, of ‘hero stories’ (from crime epidemics to Biblical parables) to make grand, sweeping statements about the human condition. This may all be to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook, and my latent, reactive xenophobia towards certain US accents reared its backward head. If Carl Sagan sounds like a Sunday morning lawnmower, Gladwell tells his stories, ranging across millenia and continents, with all the verve of an inkjet printer battling its way through and across a low-resolution copy of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.

jenny saville Hybrid, Jenny Saville

Snug 1






“Writers must eat too, but why crusade for further perpetuation of the idea of art as commodity, art as a product no different from other things produced to function pleasantly within a market society? To crusade for the artist’s right to have work treated like any other commodity is to invalidate the subversive force of writing, its destructive content, its truth, and denigrate the ‘alien and alienating oeuvres of intellectual culture’ to the level of ‘familiar goods and services’ (to paraphrase your quote from Marcuse, Matt).”

Jim Andrews, Several Numbers Through The Lyric

Dendrocybernetics


I’m working on some prototypes for a (hopefully) upcoming computational project which concerns the growth rings of trees, and simulating them in code – their accretion, the environmental factors which influence their shape, colour, distribution, width and so on – is proving to be an interesting little challenge. I’ve been using Processing (which is essentially a breed of Java) as I’ve been getting familiar with it elsewhere recently; burrowing my way through Daniel Shiffman’s excellent Nature of Code, a book about the simulation of natural processes. More than anything, Processing makes it very, very simple to draw a circle, and – fundamentally – mess about with it in consistent ways.

Shiffman’s book mostly concerns itself with slightly more elemental components of the natural world: gravity, entropy, friction and oscillation, which in simulation get frustratingly ornery. When I have thirty ellipse()s flying about according to equations that I didn’t understand at GCSE, and still clearly don’t, the margin for error is quite wide, and bugs difficult to reverse-engineer. In comparison, the first pass of generating a cross-section of a tree was reassuringly post-hoc: an array of an arbitary number of concentric circles drawn to the screen, each a standard factor larger than the previous; nothing to sustain beyond the first 30 step()s or so.

The next pass was to add perhaps the most obvious variable to what was, at the moment, little more than an icon: a variable width of ring. Most of us probably remember an early lesson at school where we were taught to read a tree stump; to accordion out thirty or forty or three hundred years of history from all that close-packed subtext. First we were taught to count the rings, and then how the width of each ring corresponded to the conditions that the tree experienced in that year: a colder year, for example, will result in less growth than a warm year. Translating this into code seemed as simple as changing the width and height of each ellipse(), but as always the fact of the code itself – its own nature – introduced an additional, irritating step. Just setting a random size for each ring, even within an arbitrary range, can lead to puzzling scenarios where a ring actually grows inside the previous year’s ring, as if the tree had just given up and decided to make a wide turn and head back for the taproot. Every time I write more code that is designed to be mimetic – to represent the functionality of real-world phenomena – I am reminded of the fact that physical absurdities and impossibilities are perfectly consistent and internally logical in code, as long as all the semi-colons are in the right place. In my recent teaching I’ve been explaining this to students by reminding them of the tale of the golem: a mindless servant who perfectly and silently performs the wishes of its master to the letter, even if that literal intepretation leads to calamity. (A slightly more chilling, and contemporary, version of this can be found in AI researcher Robert Miles’ version of the stamp-collector thought experiment).

For me, the computer’s binary literalism was a bit less dangerous. On each round of the for() loop generating each ring, I had to store the base width of both the previous and next rings and use those as constraints on the size of the current ring. After this, the simulation instantly took on an organicism, as computer simulations often do when you add in a touch of bounded pseudo-randomness. Rather than thirty years of Platonic summers, the tree now was telling a more interesting life-history: a promising start, some lean middle years, and a stability, and confidence in its field, as it approached the day of its felling.

There are more variables to consider. At the moment, this tree is still an icon: perfectly cylindrical, or at least as perfectly as Processing can render it. The other, numerous variables that influence a sapling into an individual tree – the noise of cellular growth – are still missing. Luckily, Perlin noise came to the rescue, implemented as a native function in Processing. I wasn’t sure, at first, how best to implement it in order to deform the shape of each ring, but eventually managed to crib and adapt this example by Peter Hoffman to give me the effect I wanted. I understood Hoffman’s example enough to strip out some of the extraneous controls, and to work out how the noise() function uses the two variables nInt and nAmp to determine how ‘noisy’ (how jagged, how alpine) the tree becomes: functioning as a seed which influences each ring, reverberating out from the first year’s growth to the last cortex.

While visually this looks acceptably like a tree-ring – at least to me, who has never studied them too closely – it’s not much of a simulation. Not only are those two values, nInt and nAmp, entirely arbitrary, they are also identically employed in each ring. While the tree appears organic, if you look closely at the third picture, you can see that every ring is an identical (if expanded) copy of the previous. If you saw this tree standing in the forest you would have no idea that it was a bark-deep simulacrum. Each ring reverberates perfectly from its seed, with no impression of the conditions of any year intervening, no echoes or ripples of past traumas and comforts – the carving of a pair of names in the bark, a forest fire, radioactive poisoning, early shade, a prevailing wind, galleries of beetles in the heartwood – in subsequent summers and winters.

I tried a half-hearted initial pass at regenerating the random nInt and nAmp for each ring, but again had the Golem problem: rings overleaving and overlapping, looking more like a tattered crepe rose than anything else. I think the next step is to do some reading, both online and out on the hillside beside my house where the Wildlife Trust felled a big beech last year,and then pick apart Hoffman’s example a little more. There are surprisingly few simulations of tree ring growth surviving out there on the Internet, though the generation of whole trees is one of those omnipresent but overlooked middlewares of videogame development that might bear a bit more fruit.

Whatever balance I choose between xylem-level specificity and forest-level abstraction in this simulation, I want this project to speak to what (I think) must be one of the greatest narrative satisfactions of practising dendrochronology – the plotting of the vagaries of life beyond the tree onto the graph which the tree’s cross-section provides: the opening of the leaves of the accordion. In essence, what I am trying to do is the dendrochronologist’s opposite: a compression of a thousand stories into a fibrous impression. A successful simulation would represent the enfolding of mysteries, asked of the tree through its witnessing. Why did you grow to the south-south east? Why was your fifth year so hard? Who burnt you at the end of your first decade? Why – the epistemic why of what Marie-Laure Ryan sees as the prototype of digital narrative – did you stop growing?

“Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? Here will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
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