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a rising mist
The Goodly Mist
A Workingblog for Rob Sherman
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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


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

face gif

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.

swimming at nantcol waterfalls, north wales

The leg-curlingly dark pool, in light sharp enough to cut your feet on: Nantcol Waterfalls, under Rhinog Fach, Snowdonia

Tickets are now on sale for the week-long Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library this July, running from 23rd – 28th July and now in its second year after its inaugural success under Abigail Parry in 2017. I was one of the guest lecturers last year; according to my hard drive, I apparently taught a class on interactive narrative conflict using a Twine game about a couple passively-aggressively cooking a complicated Middle Eastern dish together. I was lucky enough to be asked back to curate the whole shaboodle this year, and I’m very excited for it. The mix of work that came out of last year’s School was a reminder of the importance of introducing a wider demographic to the concept of using the computer as an agnostic, narrative tool. I think I’ve jalopied together a week of guest speakers, workshops and lectures to easily handle whatever heterogeneous bunch turn up this year.

Considering I spent most of my January hashing out the marketing literature with the Learning Department, I’ll just let myself speak for myself.

Led by computational artist and writer Rob Sherman and a host of specialists in interactive storytelling, you’ll learn the skills and techniques to write works of fiction in a dynamic form; one that allows the reader to choose the direction of the narrative.

Stories are, at their heart, journeys through other worlds in which we are led by the author and the text. But what if we could allow our readers to map their own path? Over five days you’ll learn to build your own stories where readers are in control of their own narrative journey. With our expert guidance you’ll tackle reader choice, learn to build living worlds through your writing and explore the use of image, sound and video as a key part of your work. We’ll also provide the technical support needed to maximise the possibilities offered by Twine, a simple open-source computer programme for writing interactive narratives.

We’ll bring you together with leading specialists in a range of fields, and our Digital and Emerging Media curators will introduce you to the heritage of maps as narrative devices, as well as examples of nonlinear and interactive fiction from the British Library’s collections.

Tickets are on sale at the British Library website, and we are coming up to half-full; though I’m sure the Marketing Department, with their classic philosophical gloom, will see it as half-empty. As myself and all the other megafauna that I have gathered to teach you spook easily in crowds, the class is limited to 16 participants: please book soon, and I look forward to seeing you on Monday 23rd. There will be a small, nondescript quantity of cake by the door: please help yourselves as you come in.

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