Monday
August 27
8:53pm

The Black Menagerie

I'm a sucker for a metaphor, especially when it comes with an unnecessarily overblown title, so I was delighted to come across the Menagerie of Postnormal Potentialities from The Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies. I have no idea who they are or to what end they are aiming at, but I love how they've extended the Black Swan concept.

Black Swan events, as you'll recall, are ‘outliers’, things totally outside and way beyond our observations. When they happen they're a total surprise and were not predicted by experts. And yet, once observed, they become just another part of normality, easily explained away.

The swan is used because, until the European discovery of Australasia, all observed swans were white and the impossibility of a black swan was often used in philosophical arguments. But, as I discovered when visiting family in New Zealand, black swans are shockingly common. In Rumsfeldian terms, a black swan is an unknown unknown, and once it becomes known it's hard to imagine it being unknown at any time. They change what we consider normal.

Black Elephants do not exist in the flesh except perhaps as silhouettes against an African sunset, but the elephant is rich in metaphor. In this case the elephant is in the room. In Postnormal terms they are "extremely likely and widely predicted events that are usually ignored either by many or a society as a whole."

While a black swan event takes everyone by surprise but it quickly accepted, a black elephant event can be seen coming by anyone who cares to look, but is generally ignored, presumably because acknowledging it would require doing something about it.

Black Elephants are everywhere in our society and notably cluster around societal issues like our inability to deal with homelessness, or the forthcoming ecological catastrophe. They're similar to Douglas Adams' Somebody Else's Problem fields.

Black elephants are normal but because we cannot see them we are shocked by how they don't fit with our idea of what is normal. They're a nice illustration of how our perception of reality is skewed by our inability to handle the truth.

Black Jellyfish may exist in the seas, though it's unlikely. They're used here because a slight shift in water conditions can cause a rapid explosion in jellyfish populations. They are "all about how normal situations and events become postnormal; how they mutate through postnormal conditions by becoming interconnected, networked, complex and contradictory."

Human communication in the 21st century could be explained as a black jellyfish event. The internet rewired how people share information in ways that we're not going to fully understand for a long time. The sharing of ideas within communities slowly went post-geographic over the 20th century with the telegraph, telephone, television and other tools which brought closer the far-away, but in the 1990s these methods exploded exponentially. The political system in Britain could be said to reflect how communities were networked before the internet, based around location, newspapers and class. Online networks radically changed this and so we have events like Brexit which don't map onto our existing parties.

Black Jellyfish are events that when they occurred in the past were normal and now they've mutated are still normal. On the surface they look the same, but their difference in scale betrays a massive change.

I wonder what other animals that lend themselves to metaphor we can paint black?

via Nicolas Nova's excellent newsletter

Saturday
August 25
6:02pm

JFDI broke the world

Back in the old social media optimism days the acronym JFDI was popular, especially amongst those advocating for a more liberal adoption of online conversational tools in traditionally constrained environments like, say, local government. Just Fucking Do It, for it is easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission, or at least much faster. I may well have advocated this position at times. I think we all did. The old world was stupid and slow. This was obviously so much better.

Facebook's version of this was "move fast and break things" which is the sort of obnoxious interpretation you'd expect from entitled brogrammer swine, updated to "move fast with stable infra" which is like yer dad trying to be entitled brogrammer swine while stabilising the share price. It's all part of the cult of Disruption which seemed like a cool idea when punching up at monolithic media companies but then venture capitalists started using it to reinvent mildly regulated, middling wage employment as totally unregulated low wage contracts, shitting on the poor with cries of freedom and, yeah, here we are now.

To be fair, in many of these cases the Disruption Cultists have just made a shitting thing a bit more shitty. Taxis and minicabs were always crappy - Uber just made that crappiness a bit different so they could syphon off the profits. Amazon simply streamlined existing supply chain methods of high street retailers that were already dehumanising their warehouse staff. Late-capitalism in Western society was already pretty terrible. Wankers like me were moaning about it throughout the 90s and actually thought the Internet might allow us to at least bypass the awful if not fix it. But Silicon Valley just used maths to iron out the kinks and accelerate the race to the bottom. Capitalists gonna capitalise. Whadaya gonna do?

Thing is, with industry and economics we can understand, to a point, what's going on. With social media it's a bit weirder. What happens when you suddenly and comprehensively rewire how societies communicate and just leave them to it? Will it be a good thing? A bad thing? Nobody knows! And we probably won't properly know for a few generations. Which makes blundering in and just fucking doing stuff, in hindsight, a little rash.

Take Facebook in Myanmar, a country that recently opened up from a repressive regime and which suffers from much ethnic strife (yay for that British Empire legacy). Facebook operates in Myanmar, because expansion into new markets is what you do, but until recently couldn't effectively moderate the content being posted in Burmese, partly because they didn't bother hiring anyone and partly because the home-grown font used for Burmese aren't compatible with the Unicode standard so all that fancy hate-speech detecting AI didn't work. The UN human rights experts are fairly sure Facebook was instrumental in promoting hate speech that lead to genocide.

As Nick Heer calmly says with remarkable restraint:

Facebook may be a publicly-traded company that is trying to do right by its shareholders — and the best thing for them, it perceives, is conquering the world. But this is an abhorrent dereliction of ethical responsibility. [...] It is a choice for them to expand to places they don’t fully comprehend. It is arrogant, and demonstrates a lack of sensitivity in attempting to merge American values with those in every region they operate.

Facebook is an easy target because they won the social disruption game so they get blamed for the effects, but all of us who went along with and promoted this was of thinking are responsible here. The privileged arrogance that the world can be fixed by maths and cheap electronics is, in hindsight, embarrassing. I'm embarrassed.

JFDI was intoxicating, and like many intoxicating things it's probably best you don't operate heavy machinery when under its influence.

Wednesday
August 22
7:00pm

Storing electricity in gravity

Kottke brings news of a novel way to store electricity for later use using cranes and concrete blocks. During times of excess solar/hydro/wind generation the electric powered crane lifts these huge weights as high as it can. Then, when there's a lull in energy the crane drops the weights, spinning turbines which generate electricity for the grid. What's striking is they claim to be recovering 85% of the electricity used to lift the blocks, compared with 90% when it's stored in lithium batteries. I always assumed these systems lost much more through noise, friction, etc, so that's good to know.

Of course this has been around for ages. The UK national grid uses reservoirs in Wales to store energy for peak times, traditionally when soap operas finish and everyone puts the kettle on at once.

There's also the train-full-of-rocks approach, where a train full of rocks is slowly driven up a hill and then, when the energy is needed, rolls back down.

But reservoirs and hills take up a lot of space. The crane system really caught my eye because it doesn't have a large footprint. You simply need to lift something up. And we have plenty of structures that can house a up-lifty thing. Imagine if every building over 3 stories had a shaft containing a dense block of metal. On top of the building is a solar array and/or wind turbine which, if its energy isn't being used, lifts the block. And then, at night or when the wind drops, the block starts its descent.

This sort of micro-conservation of energy has a lot of potential. Cities absorbed insane amounts of heat this summer which just sat there in the concrete making everyone uncomfortable. Couldn't that energy be captured and stored in a kinetic system?

Wednesday
August 22
5:25pm

I now work at Loaf

I've taken a fixed-hours salaried job at Loaf bakery and cookery school in Stirchley. If you've been following me for a decade or so you'll know this is a surprisingly big deal. I haven't had such a job since leaving Waterstones in 2003. After that I worked for temp agencies for a few years and then stumbled into freelancing, first with the emerging social web and then as an artist practitioner. It's never been lucrative, but then neither was retail and I've kept myself alive this way for 15 years.

I enjoy the freelance life. I'm typing this in the afternoon in my garden with the rabbits hopping around my feet, which is pretty sweet. Freelancing for me has been very short-term often well-paid jobs, based on the skills and knowledge I've developed over the long-term, usually unpaid. The goal has been to make these two broad areas complement each other, so the art practice, for example, nurtures insights and skills that make my photography teaching unique and effective, while the teaching subsidises the art-making. Sometimes you get paid to make art and sometimes the teaching pushes your practice along, as happened with the Rivers of the World project (launching in London next month and ripe for some personal documentation) but usually it's a nice steady swing between the two worlds.

Of late I've been finding this balance a bit tricky to sustain. I've never been good at promoting myself into the job market - most of my work comes to me rather than me looking for it, and when I do put myself out there the results are often dispiriting. I spent a long time writing an application for a large chunk of all-or-nothing funding and wasn't successful, meaning that time and effort was for nothing. Yes, I could have repurposed it for another application, but that's more time and more effort which I can't spare. Meanwhile I'm looking at the freelance gigs I've had of late to figure out how to get more of them. Not only does that lead to dead ends but I then get offers of work which have nothing to do with my existing CV.

It's a bit discombobulating, but it's also quite nice, because, aside for proving I'm shit at marketing myself, it means I've probably developed whatever-it-is-I-do into something pretty unique that doesn't always fit into the current categories in demand. I've made my own bed which I have to now lie in. It's my bed and it's very comfortable. It just doesn't always pay the bills.

But after spending a good chunk of my time failing to get work, or fretting about failing to get work, or some other waste of effort, I had a small revelation. I need about £800 a month to cover the basics - mortgage, bills, food, etc - and I can earn that from a part-time living-wage job that takes up the same time as I'm currently wasting. And look, there's one coming up at Loaf!

I've been tangentially involved with Loaf since it opened in 2012, volunteering in the community shop it housed for the first year and then running my Beginners Photography courses there on Sundays in exchange for odd jobs and favours. Loaf is run as a worker co-op, which is really interesting for a high street retail venture, but more importantly is run as a nice place to work. It's not anti-capitalist in as much as sidestepping the seductive trappings of capitalism in favour of keeping everyone sustainably employed, financially and healthily.

In short, if I was going to take a salaried job working for a company and not be miserable about it, this is the best company I could go for.

So, what's going to change? Not much, really, but maybe a lot over time. The time I feel I've been wasting on finding paid work will now be spent enabling the supply of bread and bread-related products to people in the local area, which feels like an improvement. The remaining time will be spent doing Photo School, which I enjoy, and making art in whatever form I need to.

In the long term this is going to embed me in Stirchley High Street which has become more of the centre of my life than Birmingham city centre and in a much more fruitful way. Rather than mostly working at home and popping out occasionally I will be seeing people all the time, people that I will probably wind up working with on interesting projects. It'll be interesting to see how that pans out.

My role at Loaf is a bit of everything except baking. I'll be in the shop serving customers and in the office doing admin. It fits quite nicely with stuff I'm already competent at doing and won't offer any major challenges, unless I decide I want to learn to bake, which I might do at some point. Fiona's very keen on this happening, of course. But for now it's a sustainable amount of cash in the bank doing a job I hope will be rewarding and which financially supports my more personal work.

I start on September 7th. Look for the slightly shellshocked older man in an apron.

Tuesday
August 21
2:10pm

Slomo Bees

One of the plots on Fiona's allotment has bee hives, so naturally I filmed them at 240fps.

Sunday
August 19
12:41am

Sunday Reads

An ideally weekly, if my Saturday wasn't too busy, selection of medium- to long-form articles I would like to recommend to you, perfect for a lazy Sunday morning in bed with a cup of tea and your phone.

Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair

This is one of those quite astonishing pieces of writing that ties up a deeply personal account of trauma and our societal situation of awfulness with the importance of writing, always writing, never stop writing, because without articulating our stories we will vanish. As someone who writes in part to make sense of the world and my place in it, I often feel the pointlessness of writing, like screaming into a hurricane of shite. But Lyn Lenz reminded me that we are not alone and that the collective nuance of many voices is the best weapon against "the flat face of fascism". I have failed to do this piece justice in one paragraph. Go read it.

The Most Powerful Publishers in the World Don’t Give a Damn

One of a few articles attempting to articulate the general despair directed at the custodians of our social media platforms who really don't seem to understand the forces they've enabled or their responsibility for enabling them. I'm not sure if "don't give a damn" is quite fair though. I don't think they realise they should give a damn in the first place. They still think their heavily programmed, heavily mediated information processing machine is as neutral as clean water.

Halfway to boiling: the city at 50°C

I really suffered this summer from the seemingly endless dry heat. I felt crushed and drained until sunset, and even then couldn't really function. Yet it only really hit 30°C in Birmingham. In other cities around the world the temperature hit 50°C and the thought of that just hurts. Which makes sense because it's potentially fatal. A sobering look at a growing trend.

The Last Temptation of Christ at 30: how Scorsese's drama still soars

My only real memory of this film was the mention on some arts programme about the anachronistic use of jet engines to soundtrack the climax, which thought was cool, but then I was raised in a godless home so had a massive blindspot for religion. A few years ago I saw Mel Gibson's gorefest adaptation of The Passion and found the whole thing endlessly fascinating, digging through Wikipedia entries for the characters like it was Game of Thrones as that blindspot started clearing. Who knew the mythology of my people was based on such meaty stories? I should probably re-watch this.

Bad Romance - To cash in on Kindle Unlimited, a cabal of authors gamed Amazon’s algorithm

A deep-dive into the murky world of gaming Amazon's Kindle Unlimited system. This goes under the "algorithmic employment" umbrella coined by James Bridle, being jobs that depend on understanding and optimising for an opaque and constantly shifting algorithmic environment that you cannot predict or control. It feels to me like we're at apex of gamification, a term that was parroted as a potential force for good at one time because humans like playing games so let's apply game systems to stuff like healthcare. Social Media works as a game, from getting likes on Instagram to building a brand on YouTube. And making money from Amazon is definitely a game as complex and satisfying as World or Warcraft. It's all kinda fun, until you realise people living on the precarious edges of society are depending on algorithmic employment, from eBay bedroom resellers to Uber drivers. Should their lives be a game?

Delightful video

Is all that a bit too much? Here's a lovely 4 minute look at the weirdness of the English language. How would English sound if it were phonetically consistent?

Thursday
August 16
10:25pm

Ken Campbell

On iPlayer Radio for the next few weeks is a three hour show called When Diane Met Ken, a deep dive into the BBC archive of interviews with and clips of Ken Campbell, accompanied by chats with people who worked with him, notably Nina Conti who you may know as the monkey ventriloquist from the fantastic film she made about dealing with the puppets Ken Campbell bequeathed to her by taking them to Vent Haven, the resting place for puppets of dead ventriloquists, and Daisy Campbell, his daughter, who you'll remember from that talk of hers I posted the other week, and who has recently taken responsibility for his legacy.

Three hours is a long time to commit to a radio show, although I know all the kids are podcasting like crazy these days and it does divide nicely up into hourly chunks, but it's well worth a dip. Interestingly, while it features people I've heard talk about Ken before, there was loads of new stuff here and very little repeated. But then I guess there are endless stories about Ken to tell.

Part of the Ken Campbell legacy work is The School Of Ken, a day of events at the British Library in London featuring Nina Conti, Prunella Gee, Toby Jones and Terry Johnson talking about him, plus other stuff. I'd be there if it was viable. (London is so unviable these days...)

The day before is a performance of Pigspurts Daughter, Daisy's one-woman show about her dad, which is also in Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle this month. I really enjoyed her Cosmic Trigger play so would love to see this. Maybe I will. Details in her newsletter.

The other night I was out with the Black Hole Club artists, most of whom are, shall we say, younger than me, which is fun because they don't know about stuff that I certainly didn't know about when I was their age, but they also know stuff that I don't know because I'm not their age, so it's always a nice exchange of stuff. I was telling Dinosaur about Ken Campbell, because I felt he would really benefit from knowing about him, and it occurred to me I didn't really know what to recommend. Because of the nature of his work, deeply influential but literally underground a lot of the time, the visible stuff doesn't tell the whole story. It just comes out in anecdotes and memories from those around him, which is lovely but kinda hard to point to. Here, listen to this three hour radio show. Watch this documentary about something else really. Watch this shakycam video of him talking about something or other on YouTube.

There's no canon, and maybe that's the point. There shouldn't be a canon for Ken. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try creating one. Maybe I'll start putting something together. You know, for the kids.

Thursday
August 16
12:22am

Hedgehog!

The first new photo I posted to Flickr in 2004 (as opposed to photos taken prior to signing up to Flickr) was of a hedgehog I found in the garden. I mention this because I don't think I've seen a hedgehog in my garden since, until this week.

Yes, we have hedgehog. Singular right now, but you never know.

For two nights in a row we've stumbled upon this little dude while going out to give the rabbits their evening feed so I think he's a regular. Tonight I fed him some slugs from the compost bin and he liked them a lot. I also left a bowl of water out because it's still quite warm.

What's particularly cool about this is we are out in the garden at night quite a lot. The rabbits, you see. So if hedgehogs were a regular thing we'd definitely have seen one by now. This is new, and probably means we have a hole in the fence, so now we have to find that and try and make it the right size that hedgehogs can get through but rabbits can't. Because it's important that the hedgehog can commute around their 1km2 patch.

We live in terraced suburbia and while the area of adjoining gardens is pretty large it is effectively an island surrounded by roads, so I don't think the hedgehogs can easily get to, say, the park or the river. But there are plenty of trees and bottoms of long gardens to live in. I'm sure they're as fine as can be expected.

But hedgehogs are in decline in the UK, particularly in the countryside, so anything we can do to help is a good thing. Did I mention they eat slugs? Much more useful than the idiot grey squirrels.

It's all very exciting, which means I've been reading up on what to do with hedgehogs. Here's some articles and resources.

Apocalypse hedgehog: the fight to save Britain's favourite mammal

Hedgehogs in the garden - RSPCA advice

The Big Hedgehog Map

British Hedgehog Preservation Society

Hedgehog!

Friday
August 10
2:47pm

Wars of the Rock Doctors

I'm the son of a geologist, so while I've never studied the science to any useful degree I have an innate sense of geological time and the importance of rocks. It's a strange sense to have, really, because while geology is everywhere, literally the planet we live on, and stretches back to the beginning of time, what we know about it is relatively piecemeal and disputed, possibly precisely because it covers everything that ever was, and that's a lot.

A couple of nice examples of feuding geologists have appeared in The Atlantic recently.

Geology’s Timekeepers Are Feuding looks at how Stratigraphers, those who name geological eras, associating each rock layer with a specific stretch of time, are dealing with the widespread acceptance of the Anthropocene, marking the epoc of significant human impact on the Earth, while we are still living in the Holocene, marked in part by the rise of humans. Does the Holocene have to end in order for the Anthropocene to begin? It might seem irrelevant to you, but you're not a geologist.

The Nastiest Feud in Science shows how a science exploring geological timescales can shift and change dizzyingly fast and never really be agreed upon. Things we take for granted now were quite recently unknown, such as plate tectonics, only fully accepted in the 1960s. Dinosaur extinction by giant asteroid, formally known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, is another strangely recent idea, only proposed in the 1980s though very quickly accepted. It surprised me to learn there are eminent geologists who see the asteroid theory as a flawed rush to judgement, and who have been bitterly attacked for doing so.

It seems if you need a case-study for Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions which, briefly, states that the practice of science, being undertaken by humans, is affected by social structures and dynamics, geology would be perfect. Because unlike those scientific disciplines where evidence is abundant in the moment, geology is building from the barest of scraps. You cannot observe changes over geological time, you can only see the effects of those changes, and while you can make some pretty solid inferences from those observations there's going to be a significant amount missing. And that can lead to feuds.

Wednesday
August 8
1:41am

Are You Satisfied?

Last August a message went around the Birmingham art grapevine saying Rachel Maclean needed unpaid extras for a film she was making in the Bullring titled Are You Satisfied. She'd been In Residence there for a Channel 4 programme and the shoot was going to be all night.

Fi and I had seen and enjoyed her film Feed Me at BMAG (you know you like a piece of video art when you sit through it for the full hour) so we signed up, as did a few friends, Louise, Ben and Joe.

The programme, The Shopping Centre, was broadcast on Sunday night and is on C4's shonky iPlayer clone for the month. There's also an interview with Rachel in the Guardian.

As extras our involvement was pretty superficial and it really wasn't clear how we were going to be used until the final piece was shown, but it was still a lot of fun getting painted blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls, even if in the end we were heavily pixelated. This is Fi being recommended face cream, followed by me being offered pants.

I have many thoughts and opinions about the Bullring's relationship with the city and the experience of making work there, be it a full-on residency or just trying to take photos on their property. But I think Rachel deals with everything I might say in the programme, so go watch it. At least for the next few weeks before it vanishes into the dusty vaults.

We were asked not to share photos before broadcast, so here's a few from the makeup room. Photography nerds will be delighted by how Auto White Balance got very very confused with these faces.

This also partially answers the question Pete With Hair?