bottom wibbles
a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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“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

A diverting thing to do, when putting off the next set of reps at the gym, is to look at each machine arrayed about the walls and try to think of them as a set of individual glyphs; an international script repeated in evil-smelling rooms across the world, and legible to anybody who has passed the induction. On one level this is visually true: a seated leg press, when it has a body curled within it, does look like it has the looptail and serif of a capital G; and anything that works your laterals instantly possesses the crossbar of a T, H or A. It’s true on a functional level; the machine clearly affords its use, once you’ve read it over a few times. But it is also true on a metaphorical level. Like letters, which (in the case of the Latin symbols) have gone through a adaptive mutation over 9000 years (or so) from direct, mimetic picturings of everyday and sacred objects to abstractions with only the most vestigial attachment to their original forms, gym machines are representative symbols: but not of concepts or objects, but of activities.

If you watch, out of the corner of your eye, somebody in a CELTIC TRIBE hoodie using a tricep pulldown, you can just about see the trifling resemblance their movements still bear to the older physical contexts from which they emerged, and which our bodies evolved to perform. Just as a capital Latin ‘A’ went through a grinding series of skeletal adaptations from the Proto-Sinaitic ox head pictogram into the Phoenician aleph – becoming more efficient, more utilitarian, trimmed of conceptual drag – the machine stands as a iconification of past human efforts which they were made to replace; a serf bailing hay, a hunter flinging a spear, or a baker stretching out spelt in a quern and drawing it back under the granite. These activities were necessary, communications of energy, but full of inefficiencies; so much superfluous equipment, time, space, ritual, environment, context and culture were necessary to sustain them. They consumed lives. Now, we have apparatus to stand as the kernels of these vast, lived spheres, shorn of any bloat; crosses between pictograms and ideograms of human effort, performing their function in minutes rather than days or years. In their self-contained significance, they can be strung into modular syntaxes; making the transfer of energy as efficient as possible.

Before you know it you’ve learnt to, quite literally, read a room. What’s more, 45 minutes have passed, and it’s time to hit the showers; and that’s a whole other lexicon to study.

chalk paths eric ravilious

Chalk Paths, Eric Ravilious, 1935

fan hir, a mountain in wales

Fan Hir, the Long Peak, looking south last February.

One of the things that it would certainly illustrate is that thought outstrips the number of atoms in the universe very quickly.

Apparently we’re used to dealing intelligently with astronomically large combinatoria. I calculate that we take in somewhere between 360 and 480 mb/second in our visual, auditory, and tactile senses (combined). We probably don’t examine almost all of it. but we do deal with it in some way.

I’ve always found it interesting, and a little mystifying, why many archetypal stories from across human culture – the sort that Vladimir Propp and Michelle Sugiyama spent and spend their lives researching – are so often about lone heroes and heroines, disjunctive from their communities, striking out into some abyssal wilderness. If we agree (as I do) that such narratives are the survivals of the oral methods by which early human cultures transmitted useful knowledge – knowledge that would, in an evolutionary sense, increase the cognitive fitness (and thus the survival prospects) of those who imbibed them – what are such protagonists demonstrating? Considering that human beings have evolved to run in complex, interdependent packs, and that we are a species for whom ostracism is a fairly dire prospect for the phenotype, they seem strange exemplars. Often, an integral component of these myths is the condemnation of the community – even its destruction – and as a narrative type they are pretty much defined by their lack of interpersonal interaction. What scenario, in the complex cultural and genetic emergence of such stories, did such stories grow to service? What do Beowulf & Gilgamesh serve to demonstrate to creatures who cannot hope to be such lone wolves, if they wish to survive, but instead are better remaining scared, chattering and clustered?

Of course, it’s not all that simple: and though our culture has been well and truly infected with the monomyth, it isn’t always helpful: and perhaps the individualistic, self-determining elements of these myths have been exaggerated in the modern (Western) cultures which particularly value them. Perhaps, instead, these stories are designed not to be instructive, but in part as a means of social control – to inclose the imaginations of those who hear them, disgruntled as they are in a rigid, stifling tribal hierarchy, and dissipate dissent in dreams of rugged self-reliance. Or perhaps they demonstrate that a community – a pack – can be something allegorical, something which can be movable, can be carried with the hero like equipment – in a magical locket, or a kindly crone, or the trees and the birds and the clouds – and upon which, after all, their entire success hinges.

jenny saville, torso Torso, Jenny Saville

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gig poster 1
gig poster 2
gig poster 3
gig poster 4
gig poster 5
gig poster 6
gig poster 7

From ‘My Pictures’, in a forgotten sub-folder: some of our ten-year-old, mostly handdrawn gig/play/variety posters from the various venues we bothered around Exeter, London etc. Very sad to think that the best two of these venues are now gone.

andy lomas artwork 1
andy lomas artwork 2
andy lomas artwork 3
andy lomas artwork 4

Some of Andy Lomas’ ‘morphogenetic creations… complex sculptural forms… created emergently by simulating growth processes.’

maritime quarter 1My daily lunchtime walk most often takes me out through Swansea’s Maritime Quarter, a tight, mostly white little knuckle of flats, restaurants and shops built out on the cold, curled land between the Bay on one side and the old South Dock on the other. It was built to be an isthmus between the regeneration zone to the east, beyond the mouth of the Tawe river, and the city itself. The barrages and sail bridges and swing locks across the various bodies of water (marina, mudflat, fountain, salmon ladder) were built, but the regeneration is slow, the land still hoarded, the money tied up in university pension schemes and dissipating EU aid. In consequence, for the last thirty years the Quarter has been a sort of placeholder peninsula. If you go there (and you do not live there) there is nothing to do but walk about it and through it and then go back the way you came. It’s easy to tell the people doing this, because they put all their efforts into projecting the air of somebody in transit, on their way to parts much farther; the streets of the Quarter are merely a way to convey themselves. Places like the Quarter are not the sorts of places that wry, intelligent, urbane people are supposed to linger, or to like. Its architectural style is Early Travelodge Devotional; everything is rusting starkly in the salt air; the only plants allowed to grow are those that have proved themselves, genetically, to tow the line, and bear primary, ornamental, poisonous fruit; and the paving goes everywhere right up to the root boles of the still-young birch trees which line the not-quite avenues. The only responses that such places are supposed to elicit are repulsion or a psychogeographic fascination.

maritime quarter 2Usually, I’m no different; I think far too much about the time I had to walk from the train station to the coach station in Milton Keynes, and still silently enumerate all the ways it reminded me of Nuremberg or a gigantic, antiseptic kidney dish. I am not the sort of person to let modern architecture off lightly. Yet I cannot help but love the Maritime Quarter without cynicism, and without much concern. It is my favourite place in Swansea, in particular the Maritime Walk which runs between the retirement apartments and the concrete sea wall. For one thing, it is uncommonly quiet. These sorts of developments are always built at a scale which is only slightly unhuman, like a stable or a portico; there’s something distinctly American about it, even though access for cars around the Quarter is mostly restricted. However, even if I see ten, twenty, thirty other walkers or joggers or strollers or cyclists, they are soon swallowed by the acrage. I don’t want to label it as one of Marc Augé’s non places, as that would be to wilfully ignore the lived furniture of the place; bikes threaded through the railings, the sound of woks from every other window, the Fisher Price castles on the balconies filling with sand and pigeon eggs. It is not a dead place in the way that Augé meant, because for these (mostly unseen) people it is a some-place; a new place, perhaps, in as much as that remains a crime. But it does have that weightlessness that Augé’s term describes; for me, with no friends living here, the excessive streets always moving me on, the shallow steps, wheelchair ramps; it is a place of easy accessibility, of non-committal passage. I can move as loose as light through it. And how the light moves too; it’s a luminous sort of place, where the glow from the Bay pinballs about and finds it way, briefly, into unlikely wells; dazzling me from restaurant smoke hoods, the bells of motorbikes parked in the shade, the hot incense-point of a plane-wing making its way over Cornwall. As on a ship, anything that isn’t battened down seems to eventually find its way out of the bailers, whether it’s light or people or Tesco delivery vans or smells or rubbish or dust or sand. Sometimes, on a narrow service street as I scud back to my office, away from the lunar curve of the beach with its sidewinders and its terriers running and North Devon headshy in the distance, I am delivered a brief present, some pleasant smell that has no origin, and slips off just as quickly: rich Chinese food; fish heads mellowed; toothpaste; always seeming to suit the sort of day I’m having.
maritime quarter 3
I think what I most love about this place is that it presents a constant challenge of interpretation. The Quarter was built in 1987, and like most of the developments of its era the elements of public art which were incorporated into the budget can easily appear as cynical adornments, fulfilling some long-gone statute of public responsibility; sofa-cushion money for incongruous steel sails, quartz fish, aggregate mermaids, Mooreish statuary, herm-like dedications to frigates and destroyers bearing the names of local coves. When we see ‘public art’ like this, in a place like this, we are tempted to hate it as a betrayal, an afterthought, propaganda for some unthinking ideology, standing for everything but that which they represent. I try and avoid this easy response, and look past the unweathered brick, and think of Exeter Cathedral, and its great eastern door which I used to walk past every day when I lived there; and how it was utterly festooned with saints, as subtle as Times Square or Piccadilly Circus; now smoothed into mystic wallpaper, rather than theological advertisement, by acid rain.maritime quarter 4 The curse of the recent leads to other, specialist thoughts as well; thoughts that something centuries-old would never prompt, even though it should. When I’m in the Quarter, I’m constantly trying to separate my experiences into two categories: those the architects wished for me, in their blueprints and impact studies, and those which have arisen in me, there, today, as unintentional as a breeze. I never asked that of a cathedral; I just loved it unconditionally and unthinkingly, and trusted it implicitly. Every uplifting impression, every angle of light, seemed carved and deliberated by yeomen, hoisted there on oak cranes for my personal revelation. We don’t allow modern, municipal architects just building buildings, that same vision.

I constantly try and divine, every time I move through the development, at a pace I usually reserve for train platforms, whether what I am feeling, seeing and thinking was intended in some way. Did the architects intend for the wind to pull you up the stepped streets to the waterfront, like an exoskeleton, so that you barely have to use your muscles at all? Did they intend for the water of the quays to be visible from the Walk, so that on both sides of your route there is water, one side wild, one domesticated? Did they intend for the Bora-Bora-lime-green render on eastern walls to, between three and four o-clock, lend the western walls the colour of a sea-cave ceiling? Or is it all an intentional fallacy? And if so, what should I think about the place now, that it so beautifully and uncomprehendingly does it anyway, in fact?

Every time I come there is something new to consider. I’ve been walking here for over a year, and I’ve only just this previous week noticed these cartouches, set both at head and double-decker-bus height in the walls of the Maritime Walk apartments. There are probably fifty of them all told, some directly facing the sea and the weather, and others tucked at acute angles in the lees. It is these sheltered examples which tells me the subject matter of the rest; rigging, lightships, eyelets, bladderwrack, an aesthetic that might have been lazy pastiche, or maybe deep allusion. I can only assume that those facing the sea were designed along the same lines, because they have been carved from such soft stone that, in just over thirty years, they have been eroded almost completely. Some have even gone back in beyond the line of the building itself, nibbling into the very beginnings of stippled, concave grottoes.

maritime quarter 5What am I to think? I find it hard to believe that the developers didn’t know that sandstone would erode this quickly, particularly in sea air. We aren’t used to thinking of legacy when it comes to these modern developments: there is always the creeping sense that they will be gone the next time we look, and replaced with something better, or not at all. I’m trying very hard, but something in me still rebels at the idea of a modern housing development being built with its ruin value in mind. Did some planning official (probably only just retired, still reachable by email, over all these years) sit and think about inconstancy, the movable coast, the softening of years, and impregnate their contribution with this almost-futile, barely-glimpsed mark of commentary, deferred until the very end of their career? Or is it just a touch of ill-planned neglect, as accidental and emergently delightful as the coverlet of sand that lifts up from the dunes every day, despite the best efforts of hoardings and sweepers and dykes, and shrouds the corners of streets like the reaches of Aladdin’s cave?

“It’s no big secret that the games industry… is extremely volatile and aggressive, particularly between those of marginalized identities. It’s honestly kind of a bad idea to recommend people to try for a job in the games industry. It almost feels like you’re expected to have to endure all the dog crap you have to step through to get to the golden staircase… It’s like some kind of horrible prank, luring you in with false promises and guarantees that can’t realistically be made.”

Zoe Quinn, Punk Games

Cave Paintings

I wrote an article on Twine, storyworlds and interactive fiction in general for my friends at The Writing Platform, just in time for the Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library at the end of this month. I think it’s a fairly good precis of the approach to interactive fiction that we are going to take at the School: a casserole of the work of Nick Montfort, Emily Short and Marie-Laure Ryan, amongst others.

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