February 1, 2023

January is at an end, and I thought I’d share a few records I enjoyed that came out in the first month of 2023. Top of the pile is A Short Diary from Sebastian Rochford & Kit Downes — a subtle, delicate set of percussion & piano-led jazz that I’ve had on repeat since it came out on ECM a couple of weeks ago. Others I’ve enjoyed, in no particular order:

Fireworks — Higher Lonely Power
Liela Moss — Internal Working Model
Jadu Heart — Derealised
Jonah Yano — Portrait of a Dog
The Tubs — Dead Meat
White Reaper — Asking For A Ride
Bass Drum of Death — Say I Won’t
Illiterate Light — Sunburned

• • •

Today, we’re headed into London to catch Metric — who made my favourite record of last year — live at the Roundhouse!

January 31, 2023

I am super excited to jump into Season: A Letter to the Future (from Scavengers Studio) when it releases on PlayStation in a few hours’ time. I’ve intentionally avoided pretty much all coverage since first seeing the announcement trailer, and being instantly certain this was going to be one for me. A chill game about exploring a beautiful world, and collating its stories? Sign me up!

January 31, 2023

Over the last five seasons, for pretty much every game of baseball that I watched, you’d find me wearing a replica Jason Heyward jersey. A lot has been written during that period about the wisdom of Heyward’s contract with the Cubs (eight years; $184M), and I don’t aim to add to it here. At his best, I always found Heyward a magnetic player to watch. His game-winning walk-off grand slam against the Phillies in 2018 is something I’ll never forget, and there are plenty of other highlights. Not to mention the consistently stunning defence that won him no fewer than five gold gloves, and the fact that he seems to be a genuinely wonderful person away from the diamond.

The Cubs having released him in November, I’m sure going to miss the guy this coming season.

Heyward’s departure sent me shopping for a new jersey. One consideration is longevity: no one wants to drop money on a shirt, only to find the player has been traded away from the club a season later. Following that logic, I might have picked up a jersey that read SUZUKI #27 (signed through 2026), or even SWANSON #7 (signed through 2029). In the end, however, I went a different direction. When you happen to share a surname with one of your team’s legends, sometimes you have to lean into it!

I could not be more excited to wear this at London Stadium this summer, rooting for the Cubbies in person, for the first time!

January 30, 2023

For my birthday last week, I successfully dropped sufficient hints to my partner such that I was gifted this Lego set: the helpful explorer droid BD-1, from the Star Wars video game Jedi: Fallen Order (2021) (and its soon-to-be-released sequel).

It has been an unalloyed pleasure to piece this little guy together. I put a few episodes of Star Wars: Rebels on in the background, and studied the instruction booklet as though it contained the secret to eternal life.

January 25, 2023

Not for the first time, I’ve been experimenting with photo sharing options. As you may have seen, I have a photo subdomain on this site — right here1 — and I’ve tended mainly to use it as home to a relative few of my favourite photos. What I’ve been searching for is something to work in tandem with that, to act as an outlet for less considered, more ephemeral pictures: snaps that are fleetingly interesting, but which I don’t need to keep around for very long. I think of text-based output similarly: anything substantial, or that I think might have a shelf-life, I post here. But, I have a Mastodon account where I can also fire off quick, one or two sentence thoughts that are of only momentary interest (and which are set to evaporate in seven days).

In terms of images, I sometimes like to post the artwork of an album I’m listening to, the tasting notes card for the new coffee beans in my hopper, or the same shot from the same point on my walk around a local park, again and again2. This stuff should be ephemeral, and I don’t want to amass a great pile of such images; I certainly don’t want them to pollute the aforementioned, more curated stream.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried Instagram. For the most part, it feels as though its continued place in the culture is owed entirely to network effect at this point: it’s where most people (still) are. Each time I re-install the app and dip a toe, I’m convinced its not the product itself that is retaining users. It’s kind of a horrible experience. I follow a handful of accounts, and it quickly becomes difficult to find their posts amidst a tide of ‘suggested’ content, and adverts (so…many…adverts). The platform has become such a cumbersome, Frankensteinian monstrosity of bolted-together modalities: still image, image series, (Snapchat-style) stories, (TikTok-style) short video, (Periscope-style?) live video etc. etc. And, at the same time, it has developed a truly bewildering labyrinth of settings, preferences, and options hidden in sprawling, layers-deep menus.

So, what are the alternatives? I’d heard enough good things about Glass to sign up, and after some playing around, I feel like it gets part way to what I’m looking for, then falls frustratingly short. The presentation of photos is great, but the (admittedly minimal) social features are frustratingly mandatory, and aspects like the surfacing of EXIF data perhaps speak to the platform’s courting of a professional & semi-professional user base3 rather than iPhone snappers like myself.

I used to be way into Flickr (we’re talking c. 2005-10, ie. two ownership changes ago), but likewise that feels more like a place for showcasing photography as opposed to sharing what amount to quick, image-based updates.

At this point you may be thinking: why not just post these photos to Mastodon, or drop them inline on this blog? These both feel like viable options, and ones that I may push on a little harder to see how they feel. There remains something appealing, however, about the idea of a dedicated channel for this kind of output.

I took a look at Pixelfed: the federated image-sharing platform that is obviously taking its inspiration from the early years of Instagram. At the time of writing I haven’t found an instance that feels quite right for me — a consideration unique to decentralised platforms, and which shouldn’t really prove a stumbling block, but I went through a couple of Mastodon instances before finding one that felt like a good fit, so I know it’s something that can make a difference. I’ll keep an eye on this option.

Likewise, I’m going to poke around at VSCO. I like the relative starkness of their image galleries, which they’re not cluttering with data on camera models and shutter speeds, or prompts for likes & comments etc. One concerns I have is, I’m not sure how nicely it’ll play via the mobile web, and I’d rather not be using a platform that’s going to nudge visitors to install an app they don’t otherwise use.

If you have tips on other options I should take a look at, drop me a line.

• • •

Update: I’m testing Pixelfed as @zioibi@pixey.org — ping me if you’re also there.

  1. It also has its own RSS feed, if that’s your thing.  ↩︎

  2. Hey, I like to notice the trees changing; it helps me mark the passage of time.  ↩︎

  3. which it seems to have attracted  ↩︎

January 16, 2023

Tim Maughan — Infinite Detail (2019)

It’s a curse of our current vantage point, that we feel compelled now to assess works of speculative fiction published immediately before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, against our lived experiences these past three years. Tim Maughan’s 2019 novel, Infinite Detail, is concerned with a very different worldwide disaster: one which is ‘viral’ in a digital sense, rather than in a biological / epidemiological one. Nevertheless, the allegory bears fruit by virtue of the extent to which Maughan is interested in the secondary effects of isolation, scarcity, and precarity. Separated into ‘Before’ and ‘After’ chapters, the novel’s fulcrum is an act of technological terrorism that results in the complete collapse of the internet. Maughan — who has written for outlets including the BBC, New Scientist, and Vice on ‘cities, class, culture, technology’ etc. — uses this pivot as means to explore both our current (over-)dependence on networked systems, and the potential shape of consequences to their collapse. For those of us who, not long ago, queued to get into supermarkets, where a mix of fear, greed, and straining infrastructure had already rendered shelves mostly empty, there are passages here that have grown eerily familiar in the years since the novel’s publication.

Maughan draws characters well enough, incorporating voices recognisable from the south west of Britain, in which large portions of the novel are set. Things are a little less sharply rendered with respect to the through-lines of characters’ motivations, and the architecture of the novel’s overall plot. The alternating ‘Before’ & ‘After’ chapter headings have the unfortunate effect of casting the technological catastrophe as the narrative’s center point. And when it comes (in the form of a pseudo-manifesto more than half way through the text), it is underwhelming, largely comprising such edgelord bons mots as ‘we let ourselves become nothing more than the content between adverts’ and ‘SkyNet is real, and it wants to sell you shoes made by child slaves’.

Perhaps, however, this is Maughan’s point: this is an act of terrorism perpetrated by people who consider it an act of liberation via vandalism, and whom prove shamefully ignorant of the extensive consequences. To his credit — and the novel’s benefit — less focus is spent on the mechanics of the collapse (settling for hand-waving talk of viruses, worms, and floods of junk data) than on how people — and collectives of people — cope. In mining this vein of narrative, Maughan is commendably unromantic, even-handedly exploring the undeniable negatives of commercialised hyper-connectivity, but also the ways in which forced disconnection could be worse. I enjoyed these passages where they occurred, even if I came away wishing that the novel overall had committed to a thesis — something which I found a little lacking.

• • •

As a side note, there is a thread of Infinite Detail that concerns the digital preservation of a particular location in the form of a temporally-manipulable virtual space. Donning AR glasses (‘spex’, in the parlance of the novel), characters are able to virtually explore a recorded time period in the history of the space that they are physically inhabiting. This rekindled my long-held desire for a digital experience akin to attending a piece of Punchdrunk’s elaborate, immersive theatre. I found myself repeatedly ruminating on the possibilities represented by The Croft of Maughan’s novel as setting for a non-combat, exploration / mystery video game, following in the footsteps of titles like Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) and Umurangi Generation (2020).

January 13, 2023

Recommencing the practice of blogging each year, I’m often sent back to this book — Nicely Said, by Nicole Fenton & Kate Kiefer Lee. Originally published in 2014, it’s a straight-forward guide to some basic principles of writing non-fiction for public consumption, and has some useful insight into what makes the web a unique medium.

I haven’t re-read the whole thing, but I do find it valuable to pull down from the shelf and flick through every once in a while, to recalibrate the extent to which my own ‘online voice’ has strayed from the path of legibility. I won’t say that I follow every piece of the book’s advice to the letter, but there are certainly ideas and rules of thumb that have stuck with me over the years.

Here’s a microsite for the book, which also includes some neat supplementary resources.

January 10, 2023

In the latest issue of Robin Sloan’s newsletter, he points to a page on the website of writer Marcin Wichary, titled ‘My Book and What It Means to Me’, of which Sloan writes:

it’s both a beautiful reflection and a compelling invitation, and it’s got me wondering if perhaps every author ought to produce a page of this kind.

That proved to be the nudge I needed to write about something I’ve not discussed here before, and which those of you reading, whom I don’t know IRL, may not know. Back in 2018 — at the age of 37 — I finally achieved something that had been a goal of mine for pretty much as long as I can remember: I completed the first draft of a novel.

I have wanted to be ‘a writer’ since childhood. And, whilst my relationship to that concept, that label, and that practice, has complicated over the decades, I still count writing amongst my few ambitions1.

I am fascinated by writing as an activity, a state of mind, and a mode of thought; in my experience, nothing is quite like it. No practice is more clarifying than sitting down to write out one’s thoughts on a subject (as I am doing right now). Amongst other things, it forces you into an assessment of each statement’s veracity, and allows you to build a path of sense-making, stone-by-stone, at the same time as walking it.

I can also say honestly that there is almost nothing in the world that I love more than stories. Just this Christmas, my father recalled asking me when I was eight years old, why — in my otherwise fastidiously neat room2 — there were more than half a dozen books littering the windowsill. The reply he received — “Those are the ones I’m reading at the moment” — baffled him, but makes sense to me even now, as someone who has openly confessed my struggles with literary monogamy. Books, film, television, theatre, video games — I have an abiding love of each form, and I’ll happily witter on about poetics, or cinematography, or ludonarrative dissonance at the drop of a hat. But, the deepest-set hook that each of these artistic forms has in me, is that of narrative. I will let slide uninspiring direction, endure poor acting, and wade through all manner of lacklustre gameplay if you have a good story to tell me. Stories, stories, stories. I cannot get enough of them, and I am unashamedly omnivorous about where I get them. I have taken as much pleasure in this regard from films starring Elvis Presley, as I have from some productions of Shakespeare.

All of which has informed a lifelong desire to make a contribution of my own to the great collective pool of stories. That feeling, at the end of 2018, of reaching completion on a draft of a novel, is something I won’t soon forget. I have lost count of the number of my abortive previous attempts: projects that failed as early as the outlining stage, and as late as being half written. One of the things I felt when I completed that first draft, was relief at how much that successful project had pulled from those that had flickered out before it. A good number of ideas, characters, and plot threads, surprised me by surviving the early demise of the stories that had been their genesis — reappearing, to my delight, as I progressed with the draft that was ultimately to succeed.

And I use the words ‘succeed’ and ‘successful’ advisedly above. To my mind, the fact that that story was taken from start to finish, and exists in a fully readable form, is a success. Shortly after completing that first draft, I made an EPUB version, and gave it to six people, all of whom were kind enough to read it, and offer a few notes. But that, as the saying goes, was that.

In his excellent craft memoir On Writing (2000), Stephen King recommends that, after completing a first draft, the writer puts the manuscript in a drawer for a few months, so as to return to it with relatively fresh eyes when undertaking a second draft. To the best of my recollection, that was my intention in 2019, when I took those notes from early readers. But the months stretched on until they became years. And in that time, though I’ve not done much more than peek at the document myself3, the problems with that first draft multiplied and metastasised in my mind to the point that even the idea of wading back in to try and fix them, felt increasingly daunting, and perhaps futile. Overmatched by the problem, I did not touch the novel in 2019, 2020, 2021, or 20224. That’s a lot longer than Mr. King recommends, and I am almost certain that if I were to return to it now, I would be doing so not only with fresh eyes, but with a relatively consistent sense of surprise — for better or worse — at what I had put on the page.

And I’ve resolved to do just that. Following a four year fallow period, I’m going to sharpen my pencil once more, and venture back in to the world of the novel, to see what needs to be done. I anticipate a great many cobwebs, some pretty gnarly, overgrown vines, and perhaps even a partial collapse of architecture I had once considered sturdy. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on at this juncture, however, my anxiety over the presumed scale of the task has (largely) given way to something like intrigue. I’m genuinely interested to know what I’ll find when I pry the lid off this well, and climb down inside.

Let me be clear from the outset: I have no illusions around this novel getting published. I also have no intention of self-publishing it — at least not through what have become the mainstream channels for such pursuits. In truth, I don’t yet know what form the outcome of this work might assume. My sole aims at this stage are, first: to bring this story closer to what I consider its finished form; and, second: to make it available for more people to read.

It would be my pleasure if you’d tag along with me whilst I hack at the vines. I’ll post updates here when I have progress to share. Wish me luck!

  1. Lack of ambition is perhaps a topic for another time, but know that I have never wanted to climb Everest, go to space, or make a six-figure salary. I hold only a small clutch of aspirations, and perhaps the most long-standing amongst them is the idea of being ‘a writer’.  ↩︎

  2. Some elements of our natures reveal themselves early!  ↩︎

  3. I’ve certainly not re-read it!  ↩︎

  4. Save for one — quite meaningful — exception, which we may discuss here in the future.  ↩︎