New art! Plus much pondering about art!

What follows is the blog archive of my newsletter sent on the 27th of February 2020. One day I'll figure out how to post to both the web and email in a way that satisfies me, but for now, subscribe over here if you want it in your inbox.

I had a quiet winter, writing-wise. I realised I was enjoying this period of intellectual hibernation, particularly over the Xmas break, so carried it on for a bit. The freedom to do nothing was quite delightful, and to be honest there wasn't much to report.

The Winter lockdown was (and still is) so very boring, but its nice not to be constantly stressed and terrified by the gaping void of uncertainty. Now we're just waiting, trying not to get too optimistic about the year ahead but looking forward to at least inviting people into our garden again.

It has helped that I've been kept very busy with Loaf this lockdown as we radically adjusted our working practices again in the new year, explained in this newsletter. I've been fully working from home running all the website and email stuff and while I haven't always worked my full hours it's certainly occupied by brain full time.

I did do one bit of writing though, marking the new Adam Curtis and noting that, to my surprise, I really liked it.

In other news, I published an Art which I'm pretty pleased with and want to make a fuss about.

Coronavirus Press Conferences – the book

Over the pandemic I've been occasionally putting Mr Johnson's addresses through my image crunching processes. They seemed to resonate with the people I showed them to, so I decided to attack the whole archive of 10 Downing Street press conferences.

There were 89 briefings in 2020, starting with the panic of March and Johnson's hospitalisation, moving through the false-dawn of the summer, returning to panic as the chickens came home to roost in the Autumn and then the clusterfuck of (not) cancelling Christmas.

As I looked at the image en mass it struck me they pretty much reflected what it was like to watch these woefully out-of-their-depth politicians attempt to reassure a public in desperate need of guidance.

The book is available as a free PDF or printed for Β£20 with Β£10 going directly to me as profit.


More details and images.

The critics love it!

"They're up there with Steadman's manipulated polaroids" – Fairlywellselling author, artist and good egg Dave Shelton

"Reminds me of Francis Bacon" – Tomasso, partner of work colleague Valentina.

I joke, but in all seriousness, I'd like to get this out there more and I don't have an agent or am particularly in with the political-digital-art intelligencia these days. So if you are and think this is worthy of note, please do pass it on to the great and/or the good.

Making money again

Popping a profit margin onto the book cost is me dipping my toe into self-funding my art practice after a year of nearly zero paid freelance work. The governments furlough support scheme looks to be ending late Spring, early Summer, and my being available for work doesn't mean there will actually be any for me, so maybe it's finally time to sell my work directly, as it were.

I've always like the patron / membership / subscriber model which is seeing a resurgence with paid newsletters the big hot thing, in reaction to the failure of surveillance advertising to support a creative ecosystem.

But I've also been a passionate supporter of unlocking the commons. Paying for a creation – be it an essay, song, photograph, idea – it utterly pointless if I'm the only person who can experience it. How can we share a culture if that culture isn't available to everyone?

Public service models like libraries and the BBC enable this, as does advertising supported and subsidised media where costs are shifted to the products being marketed. But paywalls create a two-tier culture, and that's a regressive step, especially for the internet.

That's why I am happy to pay for the Guardian even though the only difference is I don't get pop-ups asking for support anymore. And it's why I reluctantly pay for the Atlantic who no longer make everything available for free, except their Coronavirus coverage, which implies they know the damage holding back the rest does to the culture.

But the best justification for unlocking the commons is that in our current system the truth Is paywalled but the lies are free. This is a problem.

ANYway, that was a bit of a sidebar. The point being I'm not a fan of selling exclusives. So what am I selling?

What does Pete do?

This has been the question of my life, both as a joke (Fiona's uncle Bill is endlessly fascinated by my lack of definability) but also practically. "Artist" works well because it's so darned broad, like a massive blanket, with delightfully vague qualifiers like "multidisciplinary" and "transmedia" that aren't seen as a cop-out.

But if I'm brutally honest it's a flag of convenience. I've been part of the art world for over a decade, and I find it very useful and beneficial to my work. But there are whole swathes of what we might call the business of art that kinda repel me, from the Saachi-eque collectors market to the politicisation of state funding that I find alientating and constricting.

That said I'm in the process of setting up an arts organisation, so I'm on the cusp of being part of that system. Walkspace has started opening up to members and we are a collective of 16 now, with more to come. Right now we're just chatting on a WhatsApp group, seeing what people are up to and getting and sense of what we need from this nascent collective.

The bit of Walkspace that I really want to develop is artist support and development, which you can interpret as "helping people do their stuff". I've been effectively mentoring Fiona in developing her artistic practice over the last few months, helping her find the edges of her interests and understand what it means to make a "piece of art". It's been a really useful thing for me too, forcing me to articulate and refine the experiences, good and bad, I've have over the last decade.

I also did this in a limited way with Megan's A Figure Walks project, ostensibly offering video/photo support to record her walk in the river Rea, but also being a sounding board as she worked through the problems and opportunities that presented themselves.

It's also become apparent that despite being 20 years into the mass adoption of the web as a creative platform, artists are still struggling to get an online presence that works for them. This is something I want Walkspace to help with, given I have spent an excessive amount of time in this arena. It shouldn't be hard or daunting – that's a failure of the services, not the users. (My first freelance job in the tech/arts scene was a "blogging for artists" workshop with Dame Helga Henry circa 2006, so it's both nice to come full circle and frustrating that I need to.)

Getting Walkspace to the point where it can raise money to pay us to deliver these sorts of things is going to take some time and is a classic chicken-egg situation, so for now it's probably best seen as part of my general practice, akin to producing or curating, albeit in more collective / cooperative way. Community shepherding, or something.

Gosh, the interface between words and reality is hard. Hopefully you see what I mean.

Let Bartlet be Bartlet

(yes, it's a West Wing reference)

Fi says I just do what I do and only really struggle when I try to define what I do in advance of doing it, so I should just do stuff and not worry about how it fits. I like that sort of hindsight approach to an artistic practice. I look at the miasma of stuff on my Art portfolio-thing and I can see patterns and themes that were utterly hidden from me at the time. That decade of work has a coherent and clear purpose now. At the time I was felt I was all over the place, unable to articulate what I was doing or why.

That decade of work has value to me. It helped me become the person I am now, and I'm fairly content with being that person, or at least more content that I was a decade or so back.

I have no idea what value the work has to other people, and not in a self-deprecating way. It genuinely doesn't feel like it's my place to value my work for others by whatever metric, emotionally, financially, culturally or otherwise. If it has no value at all, or worse a negative value, then that's obviously a problem; part of the personal value is that connection and resonance with other people, which is why I put it out there. But the quantification and qualification of that value to you, a person who is not me, is by definition unknown, and that's OK.

I support a bunch of people via services like Patreon, chucking them some digital coins every month or so. When I do this I rarely see it as a transaction. I want nothing material in exchange for my money, just the knowledge that they're doing the thing they couldn't otherwise do. I don't need to see a video every month or a newsletter every week. Sometimes work needs to gestate for a while to take shape, and that's great – just keep me posted that you're still around.

Patronage for me is doing my small bit to ensure that the people whose work I enjoy and benefit from are able to spend time making it. Ideally I'd live in a culture with no-strings Basic Income that supported this, but I don't, and the government has historically not wanted to increase tax revenue, let alone spend it on the arts, so we make do.

This has turned into a long one…

So let's bring it to a close.

I did the maths and if I were to dedicate one day a week to making art and art-related stuff, I would ideally need it to generate Β£70, or Β£300 a month. That's one of those sums that is both tediously small and annoyingly large, depending how you approach it.

Could I generate some or all of that from a Patreon-style system?

What would people want in return for supporting me?

Do I offer the full-fat Pete exploring everything of interest or a slimmed down Pete that fits into an easy category?

As a reader of this who's made it to bottom I'd genuinely welcome your thoughts and opinions. I know I find things I find interesting interesting. But do you find them interesting enough to support me giving time to them? Or I am deluding myself?

The end

Here's a funny picture I saw on the internet. (via)

Thank you as ever for your time and interest,

Stay well,


A new Curtis lands

So there's a new Adam Curtis film out. It's 8 hours long over 6 chapters and in it he attempts to explain, or outline a theory explaining, how we have gotten to where we're at at this moment in time and why the world doesn't seem to be working for anyone anymore.

I have had a fluctuating relationship with Curtis' work over the years. The first film (I'm calling them films because while they tend to exist as TV serieses, the nomenclature of the tellybox doesn't quite fit) of his I saw was The Power of Nightmares in 2004 which turned me into a raving fanboy for a while. Once the honeymoon wore off I became more cynical of his approach, seeing it as something to be avoided even if I do mostly agree with him on things. I think it's that thing where someone working close to your wheelhouse prompts a unique flavour of criticism, because you swim in those waters and you know what they're like. Yes, that stuff he's talking about is interesting, but he's doing it wrong.

I don't pretend to be Adam Curtis' peer, but it amuses me that my (stalled due to pandemic) 1972 Project could easily be a Curtis film. It sees me approaching middle age and considering how events and ideas surrounding the year of my birth might explain how we have gotten to where we're at at this moment in time and why the world doesn't seem to be working for anyone anymore.

So yeah, Curtis dropping an 8 hour film on pretty much the subject I'm been pondering… Nice.

The first part of Can't Get You Out of My Head is, I was relieved to see, classed Curtis. A brain-fart of disconnected ideas and obscure characters bundled up in search of a narrative thread. I confess I joined in the commenters jeering in the Guardian's review, noting the peculiarity of focussing on Kerry Thornley, the founder of Discordianism (of which I know something), but utterly ignoring the contribution of Robert Anton Wilson who at the very least popularised it all.

But I was intrigued, so I watched the second part. And reader, I loved it, and the rest. The final chapter is quite divine and fully quashes any reservations I might have built up over the years. There's even a note of optimism, a sense that we are stronger and weirder than the forces that try to control us, that we might be able to find a way out of this nihilistic stupor and build a better, or at least different, future.

I may write more about his conclusions, or I may just let them percolate in my brain and feed through my own work, but I certainly recommend you get through the first episode and give the whole thing a go. It's only 8 hours. What else are you doing? (Don't answer if you're actually doing stuff.)

Further reading:

Notes for Dec 18th

It's funny how despite knowing that my energy levels graph like in sin-waves, with a peak followed by a trough, when I'm at a peak I totally don't see the trough coming, assuming that I'll be able to maintain this awesome level of productivity forever without crashing. Which is to say the last fortnight was fun… Anyhoo, we're in the final cruise towards Xmas and most of my jobs are done, so things are a bit more chilled. Let's get some notes down.

Solihul in December 2020 - 4

We went for a walk with our walking artist friend Kruse around suburban Solihul last week and I continued my very occasional documentation of pandemic signage. I particularly liked this guidance on a school gate that has already been edited with black tape, juxtaposed with a fading NHS rainbow. It seemed to sum up the vibe of the the UK this winter.

πŸ“· If, like me, you really enjoyed the recent Lovecraft Country telly series feeding the horrors of racist America through the medium of pulp genre fiction, you'll find Rich Frishman's photography project Ghosts of Segregation of interest. From coloured-only entrances to internment camps, the dark history of the USA can be found in the architecture long after it's struck from the statute books. What's astonishing to a foreign viewer is how blatant it is, but then we're very good at covering up our racism in the UK.

βš”οΈ RIP Richard Corben, cover artist to Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell. I was never a fan of barbarian fantasy art but given the pre-internet tiny size of the "people who like weird shit" subcultures I was part of I would often bump into his work via Heavy Metal magazine. Corben is of note for being an equal-opportunities fantasy artist, with his musclebound men having implausibly large cocks alongside the implausibly large tits of the women.

Jason Kottke posted an excerpt from Art & Fear, an excellent book that I highly recommend for any artist regardless of their medium or practice, especially when they're going through the "what am I doing this for, I can't make good work and I suck" periods that every artist goes through. The passage is the classic "quality vs quantity" example of toiling to make one perfect piece vs iteration through rapid making, with the latter winning out. I first came across it from a cartoonist who, being often asked how they developed their craft, recommended getting a stack of paper a metre or so high and filling every sheet with drawings. Then you'll be ready to call yourself a cartoonist.

Art & Fear's example uses ceramics, but it turns out story was originally about photographs. They changed it to broaden the scope of the book and to universalise the lessons, the authors being photographers. Jason isn't so sure.

The specific details lend credibility to the actual story and to the lesson we're supposed to learn from it. There's a meaningful difference in believability and authority between the two versions β€” one is a tale to shore up an argument but the other is an experiment, an actual thing that happened in the world with actual results.

I've always found these sorts of objections fascinating. There is the recounting of facts, and there is the telling of a story, and we often confuse the two. What is the purpose of story telling? Usually it is about communicating a message as simply as possible, to communicate an idea in a way that it stays in people's minds.

The real world is not simple and clear. It may provide us with examples we can use in our storytelling but they will always need to be tidied up, edited and embellished. There is technically no such thing as a "true story". There is the truth, and there are stories told about it. Some hew close, some diverge wildly.

A story should only be judged on whether it succeeds in affecting the receiver. In Art & Fear's case, the story does not succeed for Jason because it doesn't ring true. That's fair, but it's not because the subject was changed. It's because the re-write didn't convince him. The story was not well told.

(For what it's worth I vividly remembered the ceramics example and was able to apply it to my photography, so it worked for me!)

πŸ—£ I love how Zeynep Tufekci has launched The Counter, commissioning someone to explain why they think she's totally wrong about something she's written convincingly on, and publishing them in her newsletter. I've started to take her writing as near-gospel, especially about the pandemic, so it's really healthy to see her open up her platform to the sort of thing that might appear as a right-of-reply or letter to the editor. It gets away from the opinion sewer of faux-debate and towards something more useful.

πŸ“Ί A promo for John Cooper Clarke's new book, containing an fantastic Hedgehog / Beatles joke, sent me down a YouTube tunnel of old JCC clips, which was a delight. It ended with Ten Years In An Open Neck Shirt, an hour long, lo-fi documentary from 1982 at the dawn of Chanel 4 when this sort of thing was acceptable broadcast quality.

Music Corner

It's always nice to see what your old housemates are up to. A decade or so back I lived with a tall long-haired gentleman who studied history and played post-rock guitar, amongst other things. He's been releasing folk-ish music as Burnt Paw and this month has a collaboration with The Sound Priestess under the title Chanting Temples, a mystic gong folk duo. Rise To Meet The Dawn is out next week and a couple of tracks are up on Bandcamp.

I am rather proud of what my old housemate is up to.

Documenting the Documentaries

I've got a massive backlog of documentaries I want to watch, so I'm going to try and watch more and write a short bit each.

Weiner (2016)
A fly-on-the-wall record of Anthony Weiner's failed 2013 bid for mayor of New York in the face of spectacular nominative determinism as photos that he sent to young ladies of his… Vienna sausage… were uncovered by the press. Released in the year that the norms of US politics were eviscerated by one Donald Trump, it's something of a historical curiosity from another world. As such it sort of feels irrelevant – there's nothing to learn because this situation will never happen again, so the film has to stand purely on dramatic terms. Which is kinda does. Weiner is a flawed character, but he at least tries to own it and move on, believing he can make a difference and help people. I kinda admire him for that. Holding politicians to utopian standards is foolish and a redemption arc can be a productive thing (cf Profumo for example). Thinking of how Trump sidestepped scandals of a similar sexual nature simply by not giving a fuck makes me wonder if maybe Weiner's problem was he was too honest and too willing to engage on terms dictated by the media. And yet he doesn't come out of this documentary that well, not to mention his subsequent imprisonment for sexting a minor. So, yeah. Maybe best seen as a portrait of a 21st century politician, warts and all?
Trailer | Streaming options

The White Diamond (2004)
My first Werner Herzog documentary was Grizzly Man, followed by Encounters at the End of the World, a duo that serve as the perfect introduction to his non-fiction work, should you not be familiar. While I have seen everything he's made since, I realised recently I hadn't seen any docs he made before that. The White Diamond comes just prior to those and is frankly astonishing. It hits all the Herzog notes and tropes that you expect in his current work, but here they feel fresh and penetrating. What also felt different was the lack of Herzog's opining. We all love a bit of "I see only nihilism and death" but here he's content to follow his nose and observe, letting others fill the gaps, from the hyperactive British engineering dork testing his DIY airship, to the soft-spoken, wide-eyed and wide-minded Guyanese labourer who falls in love with it. Just when I was seeing Werner as a comfortable blanket I discover his back catalogue. Wow.
Not available commercially but has been uploaded it to YouTube.

Speaking of Werner Herzog, after writing the above last week I went on a bit of a binge, wanting a bit of clarity about what has driven this man to make such a huge number of films that seem to be thematically linked. Then I remembered I'd downloaded this video essay, The Inner Chronicle of What We Are – Understanding Werner Herzog, and it turned out to be the perfect overview of the man's philosophy, adding layers without detracting from the magic. And if you haven't watched all 51 of his feature films don't worry, there are no spoilers.

Links I'd like to share but don't have time to add anything substantial lest we be here all week.

🏰 This Artist Posed As a Hungarian Billionaire Buyer to Get Into 25 New York Penthouses. Nice blag and lovely photos.

πŸ“§ Substack launches an RSS reader to organize all your newsletter subscriptions. Bear in mind Substack is on an investment-driven growth spurt which will end with them fucking everyone over, so… yay?

πŸ“· Understanding ProRAW. A journey into cameras, RAW, and a look at what makes ProRAW so special. Halide's deep dives into Apple's computational photography are always worth a read.

πŸ’» Making a digital clock in Google Sheets. I need to make some spreadsheet art. It's the only form of programming that doesn't give me a stress headache.

πŸ’° I keep hearing people complain that the 'mainstream media' does not understand economics and that we're talked down to as if everything must be explained as if the economy is a household. In this thread I explain all you (and they) need to know. Fantastic essay, essential for anyone who still thinks austerity was necessary to "balance the books", rendered as a series of tweets for some reason.

Β© Unfiltered: How YouTube's Content ID Discourages Fair Use and Dictates What We See Online. Features an interview with Lindsay Ellis.

πŸ›« Modern consensus ghosts such as the Monkey Man and the Gatwick Drone. Good musings by Matt Webb on the uses of urban mythology.

πŸ‘΅πŸ» What Facebook Fed the Baby Boomers. Old people have been systematically broken by Zuckerberg's machine.

πŸ“½ Francis Ford Coppola Is Still Going for Broke. Delightful interview

πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§ The British middle class is in freefall, its young people pushed into precarity. One of those essays that reminds you why Owen Jones is worth keeping tabs on.

πŸ‘‘ The Majestic Untruths of 'The Crown'. Helen Lewis on the simmering culture wars around historical drama and "the subordination of facts to narrative", which is what I was going on about earlier with that Art & Fear ramble.

That'll do for now

If I don't write another of these before Christmas, have a good one. Be safe and don't get too lonely.

Notes for Dec 5th

Thanks to those who let me know that they liked the new format. I'm still not sold on the emoji's but the act of choosing the triptych entertains me enough to continue in this vein.

Brandwood End Cemetery this afternoon. I like how this photo looks like it's a 3D render. The gravestones are too flat, the green grass too green, the tree textures too uncanny. But this is how my Nikon captured it.

πŸŽ‚πŸŽ…πŸ»πŸŽ„ My mum's Christmas cake is somewhat legendary, especially as she has sent me a significant chunk of it every year I wasn't able to join her. circa 1999 my sister delivered a massive one to the significantly large bookshop where I was working and I distributed a slice to everyone who worked there. People talked about it for years after. Even after she moved to New Zealand a decade back, I'd still get a kilogram or so in the post, which is ridiculous, sending an actual cake from New Zealand by airmail, but upon eating the thing it always seemed worth it. Awesome cake. Awesome tradition.

This year she's decided to retire and passed on the recipe to my sister, who made her first proper attempt this week. I said she didn't need to send me any and mooted that maybe I might have a go, and she forwarded the recipe. Part of the cake's legend for me was that the recipe had been handed down from our grandmother who got it from her mother and so on, presumably transcribed by hand in some ancient notebook. So when sister sent me some photographs from an old Delia Smith book…

Never meet your heroes.

πŸš«πŸ›ŒπŸ˜΄ I'm in two minds as to whether the psychology behind revenge-bedtime-procrastination applies to me. On the one hand, I do my best work between the hours of 11pm and 2am and would be totally nocturnal if society permitted. On the other hand I'm not working long hours at a job I hate – I'm in the surprisingly fortunate position to be working reasonable hours at a nice job and have plenty of time to do the things I love. I think it's that being awake at this time is calming, because everyone else is asleep so I don't have to attune myself to them, to figure out how to be around them. A huge chunk of cognitive work vanishes and I'm able to be much more productive. Maybe I'm carving out a space where I can be myself. But, unlike those poor fuckers doing 12 hour shifts, I'm not doing it out of revenge, more for self care. (I believe some people get up at 5am for similar reasons, but just typing that hurts my brain so I'll leave it there.)

πŸ„πŸ’‘πŸ„ I continue to have barely started Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World : On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins due to my lifestyle, such as it is, not really lending itself towards the reading of books, but every time I do I find awesome gems like this.

How does a gathering become a "happening," that is, greater than a sum of its parts? One answer is contamination. We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worldsβ€”and new directionsβ€”may emerge. Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option. One value of keeping precarity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival.

The first paragraph of chapter 2, Contamination as Collaboration

The book uses fungoid life to explain The Modern Condition, and it's surprisingly effective. I really this reclaiming of contamination as a good thing, of getting mucky and mixing it up. Purity is a terrible idea both biologically and intellectually, which of course begs the question, why has it been such a dominant idea for humans? If you've already contaminated your brain with the ideas of Paul Stamets, this is a good next step.

Documenting the documentaries

I've got a massive backlog of documentaries I want to watch, so I'm going to try and do one a night and write a short bit about it.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)
Like many who were in their late teens in the early 1990s, I liked Bill Hicks a lot. And then he died. Hicks was counterculture – not strictly in a hippy sense, although he was all about the consciousness expansion. He's definitively of the 80s and attacking the hypocrisy of the that era, which mostly involves attacking conservative and religious government and institutions. He's a think-for-yourself libertarian, but socially aware. I wonder how he would have adapted to the 21st century. I often find myself wanting to defend institutions these days. If, and it's a big if, we're going to have a society, we're going to need to organise it, and if that society is going to have millions of people in it, ideally not killing each other, that organisation is going to be pretty institutional. Isn't the problem that bad people are corrupting and destroying the institutions that should exist to help people? Would Bill agree? We've had a good decade of people distrusting the government and "thinking for themselves" and it hasn't worked out that well. Was Bill's aim wrong, or was he right for his era? What would Bill have made of Trump and QAnon and the fucking internet? So many questions.
Watch online

From the mailbag

πŸ’¨πŸŒ β˜„οΈ Jez replied to the last newsletter, partly to poke fun at my description of air as a "solid mass", to which I might retort, "on an atomic level nothing is solid, mate", but I take his point. I will attempt to write more clearly about how I find wind to be uncanny in the future. More interestingly he tells of a photographic array built in the Australian desert to capture meteor falls and track them back to their source, like the dashcam footage of theΒ Chelyabinsk meteor, only on purpose. Speaking of meteors, I forgot to mention we'd just watched the latest Werner Herzog doc on that very subject, Fireball – Visitors from Darker Worlds, and while it's a pretty run-of-the-mill Herzog, that still raises it head and shoulders above all else. It's on Apple TV+, if you have access to that.

That's all for today. Do feel free to send any notes on my notes!

Notes for Dec 3rd

Been a while. Day off today with nothing on the todo list for a change, so let's try something new.

Full moon through the corrugated plastic roof of the rabbit run.

I got very confused this week by condensation on the plastic roof I recently put up over the rabbit run and outside the shed door. Over the weekend it was very cold and I found condensation on the underside of the roof. This implies that it was warmer below than above, something that makes sense, as you'll know if you've ever left a tarp on the ground on a cold day. But this covered area has no walls so any ground-heat should have dispersed to the sides on the two metre journey to corrugated plastic. And yet droplets were collecting to the point where it was effectively raining in the area I wanted protected from the rain, which was terribly annoying.

Finally, with help from Fiona, we cracked it. There hadn't been any wind for days. Any moist heat from the ground was going straight up and staying there, depositing its h2o as it cooled. And yes, now we're back to normal windy rainy weather the underside of the roof is dry as a bone.

Condensation is fascinating. In fact, air in general is fascinating. A solid mass covering the earth that we move through without thinking about. This must be how fish feel about the sea.

πŸŽ¬πŸ€”πŸ¦ˆ Grace Lee asks why Jaws is a horror movie when it doesn't fit the standard definitions of horror, in a classic "it's not about the shark" deep dive of all the things it could be about.

πŸ’₯πŸŽ₯πŸ•΅οΈβ€β™‚οΈ This reconstruction of August's Beiruit port explosion, where tonnes of badly stored ammonium nitrate destroyed the port and emitted a shockwave across the whole region, uses photogrammetry of videos taken before and during the fire and explosion to recreate the probable layout of the warehouse interior and the sequence of events. Reminded me of the Chelyabinsk meteor landing of 2013 which was recorded by loads of dashcam video cameras which enabled scientists to figure out it's origin, direction, velocity and landing point (as documented in this slightly OTT tv show). At the time the Russian dashcam phenomena was novel – not so much now.

The burst of successful vaccines over the last couple of weeks has been great news, but it seems to have triggered an odd reaction in me. I realised I sort of don't want the pandemic to end. Not because I want people to keep getting ill and dying – that's absurd. More that I think I've finally got used to this situation and the idea of everything changing again is not a pleasing one. Some of it is purely logistical – I've been assuming this won't end before 2022 and we have steered Loaf's business plan accordingly, so having to tear it up and go through the planning process all over again is not something I want to do for a while. But there's also a more psychological aspect. I'm relatively at peace right now after a fairly bumpy 9 months. I'd like a period of stability, of knowing how to live in the world, before we go into the bumpy period of exiting this nightmare.

Do I have Covid Stockholm Syndrome? Is it possible to have mild PTSD from too much change?

πŸ˜·πŸš—πŸ§ͺ White Tents in the Car Park is an enjoyable entry in the "pandemic Britain is a shit disaster movie" canon. Emilia Ong documents a drive-through Covid testing site visible from her window, incongruously next to a closed funfair in Margate.

πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡ΈπŸ’°πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ I'm looking forward to this new docuseries on The Reagans as it's a strange blind-spot in my history knowledge. I feel I've got a fairly good handle on Thatcher and Thatcherism, but the nitty gritty of where Reagan came from and what was going on behind that folksy good-old-boy schtick is a bit of a mystery. Here's the trailer.

I didn't think The Death of Flash would affect me, as I don't think I've knowingly used anything that runs in Flash for years now, but I'm feeling oddly ambivalent about the dialogue that Adobe pops up on whenever it gets triggered, usually when reading some story about Flash being discontinued by Adobe, asking me to uninstall it for security reasons. While it might have been replaced with a hellscape of bloated web-apps and surveillance scripts, losing Flash is one of the bright spots of 2020. So why haven't I uninstalled it yet? I guess for the same reason you don't throw away old tools. I have spanners and screwdrivers I'm 99.9999% sure I'll never use but I hang on to them, just in case. I'll keep Flash disabled, because it's Flash, but I want to keep it around. You never know.

πŸ€˜πŸŽΈπŸ§Ÿβ€β™€οΈ This short article asking what is the heaviest music ever made is one of those rare beasts where the subsequent comments are a treasure trove of magical finds. If you're into your doom-laden drone, that is. Nicely makes the distinction between loud (easy enough to achieve) and heavy (more nuanced and subjective).

βœ¨πŸ›°πŸŒŒ You can always use more awesome photos of deep space in your life so bookmark the Atlantic's Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar for a daily burst of cosmic insignificance. Seriously, experiencing "a diminished sense of self" is good for you.

Magical runes found on the road on my way to work. What secrets do they hold?

That's all from me from today. I'd like to try and do a version of this every night before bed, as I tend to spend an hour or so aimlessly pottering at midnight. But no pressure. Let me know if you like it.

Exeunt Corbyn

Waaay back in 2000-whenever-it-was, when the world made a smidge more sense, I joined the Labour party to vote in the leadership election. You could call me an entryist, but I'd pretty much always voted Labour and been on the cusp of joining for a while. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader and Tom Watson as deputy. Watson, if you're not aware, was a veteran of Gordon Brown's fairly centrist government, but I knew him for his work opposing the Digital Economy Act and the Murdoch phone hacking, and he seemed like a good egg.

Corbyn and Watson were principled politicians from opposite ends of the party, and ultimately that was why I chose them. After seeing Ed Miliband fail to beat the Conservatives on their own turf I felt Labour needed an injection of actual socialism, to remember what a democratic socialist party was supposed to be fighting for. But I also felt a wholesale rejection the Blair/Brown ideology would be a mistake.

Labour needed to grow, to accept it was a coalition of many views that shared a common goal. I hoped that Corbyn, who wasn't expecting to have this job so late in his career, would act more as a spiritual leader, working with Watson to empower people from across the leftist spectrum, putting aside their differences and working together to create a force that could properly dominate British politics.


Here we are…

Jeremy Corbyn is probably not an antisemite, but he seems utterly incapable of dealing with the fact that some people he admires hold antisemitic views. It is a genuine tragedy that there is no clear way to criticise the right-wing Israeli government's appalling actions in Palestine without criticising the existence of a Jewish state, but that doesn't excuse people from being racist assholes. The left is not immune from racist assholery – if anything its susceptibility is more pernicious because it thinks it's immune.

If you're leading a party that identifies first and foremost as democratic socialist, then you're going to have a lot of Jewish people around, because leftist Jews have always been a key part of the movement. And you're also going to have a lot of pro-Palestine people around. So it's your job to bring them together, to find that common ground.

On this, and countless other issues, Jeremy Corbyn was a terrible leader. He may have been a lovely man, a righteous man, a moral man, but he was a shite leader.

Corbyn has been suspended from the Labour party for being a whiney bitch about the report into antisemitism under his watch.

Tom Watson stood down at the last election and has left politics because he couldn't be arsed with the hassle and abuse he was getting from within the Labour party.

I left the Labour party after it became clear they weren't going to properly oppose Brexit, though I donate occasionally and support them in elections. In hindsight I should never have joined as I'm unable to separate my beliefs and ideologies from the need to get elected and be in government.

I have a few friends who are active Labour members from across the spectrum. Some of them appear to have gone fucking insane over the last few years, if their Twitters are anything to go by, like rats fighting for scraps of meat off a rotting corpse. The worst part is they are experts at attacking someone a few steps to the left or right of them, but absolutely hopeless at dealing with the gaping maw of awfulness that's been in power for the last decade. The left has neutered itself.

What this country needs is a progressive coalition with the sole goal of attaining political power. Everyone from the LibDems to the Marxists needs to be included. We will never agree on everything, but that's OK. We just need to agree on enough, and educate each other about our differences. And then we can kick this minority interest Tory party to the kerb where they belong.

I don't know who is the best person to do that, but it clearly wasn't Corbyn. Get over him, learn the lessons and move on.

Is my take.

Heritage Socialism – a working definition

I'm working on a piece where the key concept is something I've called "heritage socialism", a term I like but which I've struggled to explain. So I'm going to have a go here.

According to the Wikipedians, "cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations." What has always interested me about heritage is how selective it is. Some things are considered worthy of preservation, some are considered in need or erasure. In a city like Birmingham, where I live, this value judgement is felt keenly as each generation overthrows the heritage judgement of the previous, with the 20th century currently being wiped out in favour of Victorianana.

Another interesting, though probably unintentional, effect of heritage is to detach historical artefacts from the present. In my mind this is where heritage differs from history. The purpose of history is to draw lines from the past to the present day, so we can learn something about ourselves. Heritage should do this, but in my experience it tends to "other" the past, to draw a boundary around it and set it in stone. Heritage is mummified history, preserved and unable to talk to the present.

It's notable that we have a "heritage industry" but not, as far as I'm aware, a "history industry". History is a practice and discipline. Heritage is packaged into products, ready to be consumed.

During the 20th century, Britain underwent a number of changes that can be umbrellaed by the broad term "socialism". Universal suffrage, the welfare state, nationalisation of major industries, the NHS, free education, and so on. It reached its peak in the Post War Consensus and has been in decline since the 1980s.

I became an adult in the circa 1990 and with the buffer of Thatcherism this period took on a mythical status. We were told it was a failure, and yet the results were still all around us. Hippies were derided and laughed at, but acid house had brought us the second summer of love. It was a bit confusing.

When I could vote, I couldn't vote for an actual socialist. Tony Blair made sure of that. I didn't even really know what socialism was other than something old and broken. Around 2000, in my late 20s, I was in a pub with an older friend, talking politics. He insisted my ideas and beliefs were totally socialist. I was very reticent, such was the cleansing power of the 80s.

(For what it's worth I currently identify as a radical-agnostic cosmic-scale-nihilist with socialist tendencies, but that's for another day.)

Fast forward to 2012 and Danny Boyle put the NHS centre stage at his Olympic opening ceremony. It's a statement, but I think the political nature of it washed over most of the people watching. The health service is one of those things that is beyond politics. As a country we're proud of it, especially when we look to the USA. You wouldn't have known that the NHS is a political creation were it not for the mutterings of bias from a few Thatcherite MPs. You can debate how it should be run, but no-one would dare say it should be abolished.

Heritage Socialism, then, is the presentation of a historical socialist or socialist-adjacent idea or movement, isolated from its past and future context.

For example, the story of the origin of NHS might say the idea came from the wartime 1942 Beveridge report and it was founded by the Labour government in 1948. Doctors weren't keen because they feared a pay cut, but Nye Bevan won them over. Hooray!

By making a heritage product of NHS history, the political and social context is removed and all we have left are facts. The NHS was founded: people generally thought it was a good thing, but there has been debate about how best to run it. Denuded of anything ideological it can be adopted by the most Thatcherite of free-market politicians as something they support.

The NHS is now unmoored from the ideas that created it. It has become closer to a force of nature, something inevitable, unstoppable and impossible to erase. During lockdown we protected the NHS, we thanked the NHS, but we never worried the NHS would disappear.

Privatisation of the NHS has been happening for the last few decades and will continue, but as long as the NHS logo is on everything no-one will notice, or much care. As a heritage object it is no longer a socialist project. We do not have "socialised medicine" in the UK – we have the NHS.

Turning products of socialism into heritage objects doesn't just allow the forces that opposed their creation to embrace, co-opt and subvert them. It also divorces them from the ideas that formed them, preventing us from building on those successes in the present day. These origin stories become curiosities, events from the past-as-foreign-country.

Heritage Socialism is a theme park where we can gaze in wonder at a time when people came together and build stuff that meant something, but it doesn't give us the tools to build for ourselves, only the mild frustration that we can't.

It's a bit of a problem.

This post will be updated and re-written as I get to grips with and develop this idea. Future versions will also be much shorter, I promise.

If you have thoughts on developing this, do let me know.

Dome Up

Last year I bought a geodesic dome connectors kit, Hubs, and a load of wood. We built a dome in the back garden, purely because I've always wanted to build a geodesic dome and had given up on waiting for a reasonable excuse to come along. Here's a timelapse of the construction.

It stayed up for a week or so and then came down because, frankly, there wasn't room on that lawn for something so impractical. But having seen it in action, and needing to replace a rotting pergola, we plotted how to bring it back as something we could use.

Initially the plan was to build it in the Spring, but that went the way of all Spring plans, and I wasn't expecting to do anything dome-like this year. But then it occurred to me a semi-covered shelter in the garden might be useful for meeting folks during the pandemic's Autumn period, if not deep midwinter, and this dome, being made with cheap and reclaimed wood, would not be the final version, so I could spend the winter tinkering and refining ready for the re-build in the Spring.

So over the last couple of weeks I built the base and prepared the bits and today Fiona and I raised the barn dome!

Fiona sitting in the completed dome.

One amusing quirk of this build is we wanted the dome to be pretty much the width of the garden. But to make a dome you ideally need an area significantly larger that the final footprint so you can lay it out flat and built it up from the middle.

So for this build I went against the recommended instructions and worked from the bottom up using a mix of props, straps and wife to hold the joints in place.

Seasoned dome-builders will be staring wide-eyed through their fingers at this insane method.

A geodesic dome is an incredibly strong and stable structure when, and only when, all the sections are connected to each other and the stress and weight is evenly distributed. Until that point it's a mess of chaos and gravity. Pull one bit and something else shifts. It took a while and mental calmness to work through the inevitable collapses, but finally we got the last piece in and, boom, dynamic maximum tension achieved!

Having spent the whole build inside the dome it was very strange to walk down the garden and get a good look at it for the first time. It did not look like I expected, much more compact and subtle, though painting it dark green probably helped. (I'm very aware that the neighbours might not appreciate a 3 metre high sphere in their periphery!) The shape is quite delightful, geometric and engineered, but sympathetic to the plants and trees. Importantly it doesn't feel huge, but has plenty of room inside.

Sure, it's a big fucking dome, but it's not that offensive, right?

There's something strange about sitting inside a piece of geometry. You understand why both the Egyptians and Mayans obsessed over pyramids on opposite sides of the globe, and why the geodesic dome became the iconic structure of the back-to-the-land movement. It just feels right.

Of course, it's not finished. The structure is up but it needs to be made useful. Watch this space (and come visit once our lockdown is paused!)

Economics and Epidemiology

The pandemic has shown us how a lot of things we took for granted actually work. From the economy to handwashing, stuff we thought we'd got our heads around turns out to be significantly more nuanced once a couple of the pillars that prop up our specific variation on society are taken away.

Take public health messaging. To the degree that I'd even contemplated it prior to March, I'd always assumed that it a was a fairly simple thing. The science declares something to be a health risk and identifies a solution to mitigate this risk. Said solution is communicated to the public and the efficacy of the solution, along with its communication, is judged on results. Rinse and repeat.

But we're in the middle of a constantly evolving public health crisis where the science looks from the outside to be a literal can of worms. While we know a hell of a lot more than we did a few months ago, there isn't a simple solution that can be communicated beyond the broad strokes (keep your distance, wear masks, wash your hands, etc). That's fine for periods of full lockdown, but what about other times? How do you nuance the message when nuance is impossible?

The UK government has handled this crisis appallingly, that is beyond dispute, but we shouldn't forget that managing this situation is a really really hard job that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Take, for instance, the new "rule of six" for England and the local lockdown for my city of Birmingham.

The rule of six is fairly simple. You can meet with no more than 5 other people at one time and should limit the number of groups you partake in as much as possible. This can be indoor and outdoors in private or public places.

Birmingham's local lockdown keeps the rule of six for public places, such as parks or pubs, but removes it for homes and private gardens where you can only have immediate family or those within your bubble. So when Andy pops over tomorrow for a chat he can't come into our garden but we can go and sit in the park.

When people hear these rules they immediately look for cases that make the rules seem absurd or wrongheaded. A common one for the local lockdown is that socialising is OK as long as there's a till. Your friends can come over to your house as long as you pay them to do the washing up. The rules appear to prioritise economic activity over human interaction.

The logic of keeping businesses open is actually pretty sound. Workplaces, shops and venues have to be Covid-secure in order to trade or they are breaking the law. Health and Safety rules apply to workplaces. They do not apply to homes, which also tend to be smaller and, in my experience, less well ventilated. Gardens also tend to be smaller. We have a pretty standard long, thin terrace garden and while we can distance while sitting down, moving around it is very different to moving around a park.

But since national lockdown ended a significant amount of government messaging has been about restarting the economy, culminating in the drive to get people back to their city centre offices, to save those shops and services that trade off the daily commute and lunch hour. "Save Pret" is, of course, not really about the minimum-wage jobs in cookie-cutter sandwich shops. It's about land value and returns on investment.

I don't think this is just about a few rich people becoming slightly less rich. Our economy is pretty much built on the value of land, and that value has arguably been inflated to an uncomfortable level. If the value of a building is based on how much rent it can extract, and if no businesses can justify paying that rent, then the value will drop.

If London property values start to drop, all that foreign money that sees a West End mansion as a nice little earner will up sticks and leave. Prices drop further and a pillar of the British economy starts to vanish. Yes, we need a corrective on house prices, but the population has been told for the last few decades to put their money in bricks and mortar. They might be able to lose a bit but a dramatic fall in land value would wipe out millions of pensions.

When I've visited places I used to live in the 80s and 90s I'm always amazed at how many more cafes and sandwich shops there are. The 40 year history of the prepacked sandwich industry is a fascinating one leading to an Β£8bn annual turnover in 2017. I'd be fascinated to see what proportion of the price of a sandwich goes towards rent. When a Pret closes because there's no customer traffic the staff can get another low-paid, low-skill job, the food suppliers can find other customers, but the landlord cannot charge the same rent.

I don't think we have particularly good economic literacy in this country. I say this because I'm in my 40s and I've only recently figured a lot of this out. If, as a country, we did understand how it all fits together we might realise why "save Pret" is actually a pretty sound piece of messaging. But we'd also understand that the way we've allowed our economy to be constructed is not necessarily ideal in the long term.

I wouldn't go so far as to say we've been lied to, because conspiracies have a bad rep these days, but we've certainly been told a fraction of the full story. We're told that property values will increase so it's worth investing in them, which means there's an incentive for property values to increase and so on. But we aren't told why and what the implications are for this economic model. Are there other things we could invest in? Why are we investing at all? What is investment for? Isn't there another way we could be organising this stuff? (cf)

But we don't ask these questions because we don't have the intellectual tools. What we can comprehend is what we see, and that's the government saving their friends' investment portfolios.

The danger is that these two messages, getting back to work and local lockdown rules, are conflated because they're both based on disciplines that seem mystical and counter-intuitive to the layman – mid-pandemic epidemiology and neoliberal economics.

If you want to get a few million people to do a thing quickly and effectively you need a clear, simple message with no nuance.

You can see how this was never going to be smooth.

Photographs as data

A rough draft at introducing the base concepts for machine learning and image recognition.

The far side of the moon, photographed by Luna 3 in 1959.

Early unmanned space exploration vehicles took images of the moon with film cameras. These photographs were automatically developed using chemicals, dried, scanned and transmitted back to Earth as radio waves. A photograph was not data, but it could become data by measuring how light reflected off small areas of its surface from the top left to the bottom right. If it does, send a beep, if it doesn't, send silence. On or off, 1 or 0. Then, at another time and place, those beeps, or lack of them, are used to fill in some, not all, of the areas of a grid and the image appears. Not identical, missing some of the analogue nuance, but good enough.

Before too long it was possible to bypass the chemicals and simply measure the light inside the camera using a sensor. A self-contained, theoretically portable digital camera was produced by a Kodak engineer in 1975. It weighed 3.6kg, recorded 10,000 black and white pixels and stored them on magnetic tape, and all consumer and professional digital cameras pretty much follow its process, albeit at somewhat higher resolutions.

At first, digital photographs were functionally the same as analogue ones, they just didn't look as good. They had their uses, like taking photos of distant planets, but photographers and publishers tended to prefer the high quality of film which could be scanned into a computer system at a later date if needed. But then around the mid 2000s, the quality increased to the point that, when combined with convenience, analogue film became a luxury, discarded by both professionals and consumers. In 2011, 36 years after starting this revolution, Kodak went bankrupt.

We now live in a world ruled by digital images. The vast majority of people carry a digital camera with them at all times which is capable of publishing its images to the internet where the vast majority of people are able to see them. These photographs exist only as microscopic magnetic switches on hard drives and storage cards. You cannot look at them in the same way you cannot hear music by looking at the grooves on a vinyl record. In order to see a digital image is has to be processed, translated from encoded data to light up areas of a screen with different colours. Each screen or device translates the data slightly differently depending on its size or operating system. And different apps might use different interpretations depending on their requirements. When I look at a photograph on my computer and then send it to you to look at on your phone, we are looking at different interpretations of the same data. We are not looking at the same data.

On the surface this doesn't really matter. The whole act of looking itself introduces enough psychological and emotional variables that any subtle differences in rendering are pretty much moot. And, of course, the medium is the message, meaning that the fact of your looking at the photo in Facebook on your phone on the bus is way more important to your understanding of it and any actions you might take due to it than the contents of the image itself. Data is just the raw material. And as long as everyone's getting the same data then at least we can try to control the mediums that are translating it, say by regulation of monopolies and encouraging a plurality of platforms.

But once we dig a bit deeper, this fundamental nature of digital images – that they do not exist as images until they are interpreted as such by software – starts to matter quite a bit.

We think of a JPEG file as an image, but it isn't. It's a data format, a way of storing information, which lends itself to be interpreted as an image by software. It can also be turned into sound. When you play JPEG data as sound it mostly sounds like static noise, but it's still sound. Some people like to manipulate images by imported them into audio editing tools and saving them back as images. If you've ever wondered what a photograph would look like when put through an echo filter, wonder no more.

What's kinda fascinating is it looks just like an image that's been put through an echo filter.

Digital data is a sequences of switches, some of them on, some of them off. When we take a photograph we translate the light that comes through the lens into millions of switches, on and off. The same thing when we record sound digitally – millions of switches. Or when we save a word processing file, or a CAD drawing, or a web page. Everything that we call "digital" is a sequence of switches. On and off. 0s and 1s

In order to experience these recordings, these creations, these pieces of media, we have to translate them from their stored state into something we can perceive. Most of the time this is pretty linear. Photo software turns JPEGs into images. Music software turns MP3s into sound. Word processing software DOCs turn into text. Just as record players turn vinyl into music or printing presses turn metal type into newspapers. But it doesn't have to be.

Years ago, when home computers were new and most households had record players, computer data was, very very occasionally, distributed on vinyl records. You would play the record and send the audio not to the speakers but to the computer which would interpret the different tones as 0s and 1s. Of course this isn't news to anyone who had a ZX Spectrum or some other home computer which loaded software from cassette tapes. Games came on exactly the same kind of tapes as albums did. Part of the nostalgia for that era is the sound of the software playing in a tape deck.

A similar aural nostalgia can be had for the "boing boing" sounds produced by a computer modem connecting to the internet over a phone line. For those of us online at home in the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the anthem of the 'net, a digital conversation between two computers rendered as a song for us to sing along to. There was no good reason for it to be audible to humans, but in doing so it neatly illustrated the neutrality of the digital signal. By design this was code to be interpreted by the modem's circuitry. But it was also music. Which can be then turned into a visual graphic. Same data, different results.