#012 — Nasty, Ghastly, Devious, and Blasphemous

Hi, hello, how are you? It’s Sunday, and this is Tendrils, your newsletter update from me — Adam Wood. The thing is, at the time this should be arriving with you, I’m camping on the Kent coast. I’ll have my fingers crossed that it sends as intended and scheduled. If not, of course, I’ll strip this intro right out, replace it with an apology, and send the thing by hand when I get back home on Wednesday.

What do I have for you this week? Thoughts on the differing utility of words, as versus images; and thoughts on accomplishment & perspective.

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Recently I’ve been playing around with a new pastebin. If you’re not familiar with the concept: a pastebin is a simple hosting platform that accepts only text. You can drop any amount of alphanumeric characters and punctuation marks in there — either to share or for safekeeping — and they instantly have a static home on the web, in perpetuity. As an example (alongside the formatted PDF) I make a plain text version of my annual Star Wars Canon Media list available via Pastebin. The reason for this is simple: plaintext is maximally mutable. Anyone can take the material in that format, and use it in any way they should desire.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’ve tinkered with the possibilities around this new service, and it sent me back to a blogpost I’ve had bookmarked since 2014, and which I often think about when starting a new project. The piece is titled ‘Always Bet on Text’; I’ve never figured out the name of the author beyond the listed handle: graydon2.

The piece is concise, and I recommend the whole thing, but its thesis boils down to: ‘text is the most powerful, useful, effective communication technology ever’. Arguments are made for text’s longevity, efficiency, and social utility (amongst other qualities), but the particular element that came to mind for me this week was the section arguing for text’s primacy above the image:

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, when there’s a picture to match what you’re trying to say. But let’s hit the random button on wikipedia and pick a sentence, see if you can draw a picture to convey it, mm? Here: “Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour, and are regularly protected as legal rights in national and international law.”

I was struck by that argument when I first read the post, and — as something of a logophile, and raa-raa cheerleader for text myself — filed it away for use in some imagined debate with an invented person arguing for the primacy of images. Perhaps predictably, that circumstance has never arisen. But, this week I encountered something close to an argument from the other side, which I also found persuasive.

It came as part of a video by photographer Alec Soth. On his YouTube channel, he’s developed some of his visiting lecturer work into a really compelling form of show and tell, using an overhead camera to present material from his archives and library. In a video I watched this week, Soth tours the viewer through a selection of Japanese-language photobooks. Whilst doing so, he makes the case for the ways in which images transcend the need for translation. He also spends time on some more abstract photography, explicitly calling out the impossibility of accurately conveying the contents through language.

And, of course, both of these positions are correct; text vs image is not a binary proposition. As with all matter, each form has its strengths and weaknesses, and should be properly employed accordingly.

This week I’ve also been thinking about ideas around accomplishment and perspective, as prompted by a Canadian rapper and a Norwegian chess player. Let’s start with the latter, since I’ve mentioned him here before (in Tendrils #009 to be specific).

Magnus Carlsen is arguably the greatest chess player to have ever picked up a pawn. I was lucky enough to see him play in person at the 2013 FIDE Candidates in London, a tournament which he won, thereby securing his spot to challenge then World Champion Viswanathan Anand for the title. In the November of that same year, Carlsen beat Anand 6.5 : 3.5 over 10 games, to become World Champion. In the decade since, Carlsen has won innumerable other tournaments in classic, rapid, and blitz formats; defended his classic World Championship on four successive occasions; and nudged his FIDE ranking close to 2900.

As I mentioned in that newsletter issue a few weeks ago, the 2022 Candidates tournament was recently played in Madrid, and resulted in a convincing victory for Russian player Ian Nepomniachtchi (competing under a FIDE flag). ‘Nepo’ was also Carlsen’s opponent in his successful 2021 defence of his World Championship. That match was the closest thing to a blow-out victory for Carlsen as could have been imagined (7.5 : 3.5 over 11 games; the final 3 games not required).

In the year since, Magnus Carlsen has made comments on a couple of occasions indicating that he may decline the chance to defend his World Championship title for a sixth time. This week, on the first episode of his new podcast, he confirmed that decision.

I don’t have a lot to gain. I don’t particularly like it, and although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons, I don’t have any inclinations to play

Speaking about the decisive victory of his most recent World Championship defence, Carlsen said even that had lost much of its importance for him:

Four championships to five—it didn’t mean anything to me. It was nothing […] I was satisfied with the job I had done. I was happy I had not lost the match. But that was it.

The psychology of a literal genius such as Carlsen is always going to be something of a mystery to me. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the casual manner in which he seemed to dismiss his accomplishment. To compete for titles is beyond the wildest dreams of the vast majority of chess players. To win as many as Carlsen has, and to hold the unified, undisputed title of World Champion for as long as he has, is rarified air indeed. Only a handful of people have matched or surpassed that particular accomplishment, and yet Magnus has come to regard it as something he can happily walk away from.

Now let’s turn our attention to a different man, operating in a different field. Somewhere around 2002, I picked up a record titled Square by Canadian rapper Buck 65 aka Rich Terfry. I don’t have a good recollection of what drew me to that album, but it hooked me deep on first listen and has remained a perennial favourite ever since. Complicatedly layered, defiantly weird, and pulling from a beguiling set of wide-ranging influences, it broadened may understanding of what hip-hop was and could do.

Buck is a bona fide hip-hop triple threat: a builder of masterful, intricate beats; a composer of singular, evocative lyrics; and in possession of an instantly recognisable yet adaptable flow. You’ll need to click through the link above and spend a little time with the music to get a sense of the first and last of those; but let me quote just the album’s opening lyrics so you get a sense of their poetry:

It was the echoing voices of the old ones Through thick steeled forests and over scorched earth Always just out of reach A murder of crows judged my every footstep My bones were frozen Penniless and entirely out of breath I washed my beautiful hands in the black market dog water trough But through it all the real stick in my spokes Was the torment of my dreams I fought off sleep with both fists and sometimes fire With no more than a blow gun I made from an exhausted pen I shot the stars out of the sky When each one fell sparkling to the ground I made wishes that never came true

After Square kind of spun my head, I’d pick up anything and everything Buck put out, or was featured on. I went back to earlier records like Vertex (1997) and Weirdo Magnet (1996), and picked up each new release: incl. Secret House Against the World (2005); Situation (2007) and latterly 20 Odd Years (2011) & Neverlove (2014). After that last one, Buck 65 vanished. His website was changed to display a single cartoon image that read ‘Gone Fishing’; his Twitter account went dark.

I’ve never got to the bottom of exactly what happened, but it was a shock and a sadness to see someone so talented and so prolific, go silent. At some point, Rich turned up as the host of a drivetime show on Canadian radio station CBC Music (weekdays 15:00-18:00 UTC-02:30). He’s been hosting that show for several years now, but it was only recently — after a near eight-year hiatus — that he started releasing any new music of his own. First came the Controller 7 album Billy (2020), on which Rich performed vocals for every track. Then, this year, a collaborative album with Tachichi (Flash Grenade), and finally — last month — a new Buck 65 album: King of Drums.

Alongside the new record, Buck started writing what has turned out to be a compelling newsletter, titled Vertices. Issue by issue, he’s been walking through his life and career, granting insight into his youth in Nova Scotia; how he got started making beats; and how his early records came together. The reason I’m telling you all of this here, is that in recent issues of the newsletter, Buck has been writing about some of the records I loved and pored over… and he really seems to hate them! More often than not, these recent issues have been a fascinating look at all the flaws Rich finds in these albums: the circumstances under which they were made; the compromises in their production; what he perceives in hindsight to be the many missteps he took in this period, away from what he ‘should’ have been doing.

Reading all this makes me a little sad, because Terfry seems unable — from his current vantage point, at least — to see all the great aspects of that body of work. He doesn’t seem to credit that many people — myself included — loved (and love) some of those records. They remain meaningful to me, and it’s a strange feeling to read that the man who created them now regrets ever having done so.

I don’t have a larger point here, other than the fact that both Magnus & Buck have been on my mind recently as examples of how singular perspective always is. It’s fascinating that someone can achieve feats in their particular field that many consider truly remarkable, and yet the individual concerned can see them entirely differently.

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We went long this week huh! Do you still have room for bullets?

• Here’s a couple of pieces on how Meta a) are engaging in shady practices with Facebook to work around app tracking permissions, and b) have ruined everything that was once promising about Instagram by turning it into a home shopping network hellscape of personal brands and invasive adverts.

• Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avery essentially stole my podcast format with their new show Video Archives, but I’m not mad about it;

• I liked this one tweet, for reasons;

• Music pick of the week honours go to Beach Bunny, for their new album Emotional Creature

OK, I’m calling time on this issue. I hope you have a good week and that you’ll join me here again next time to talk about who knows what. Until next time!


— Adam