September 16

Sunday Reads

Feels like a light bunch of reads this fortnight. Maybe because of the new job I haven’t been deep-diving so much, but maybe this is a good thing. Enjoy some word-snacks.

How Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will become President

A few years ago, possibly when Trump was running for, but hadn’t yet become, president, I read an article following Mr Rock around his daily life which posited he might be president one day. I looked for it today but there are now hundreds of the things, which either means he will be, or he definitely won’t be. This is not that article - this is short story in the form of an emailed proposal by Robert Sloan that declares President Rock to be an inevitability that needs to be programmed by a book that will become a film staring The Rock who, when he becomes president, will use his memory of the film as a template for policy, just as Reagan did with his movies, so it needs to be a good book.

Continuing to Dangle

I am endlessly impressed at how Andrew Rilstone writes so eloquently, making serious and lucid points about the human condition, while exploring the minutiae of 1960s Spider-man comics, of all things. This sort of nerd-heavy writing should not transcend its nerdery, but it does.

Will Terrence Malick Ever Really Finish The Tree of Life?

I’m a sucker for artists who never finish their work, always coming back to fix it. Eddie Campbell’s endless edits of his Alec comics has begotten a complete reworking of From Hell and all those Directors Cuts can’t just be for financial reasons. (Let’s not mention George Lucas though…) So news that Terrence Malick is reworking his magnum opus is entertaining if nothing else. I wasn’t that fussed with the original but maybe I’ll revisit it now it’s 50 minutes longer.

The New Science of Seeing Around Corners

This is a nice short overview of the state of what we might call “extreme imaging”, using faint echoes and shadows to build a pretty coherent record of the world beyond our senses.

In their first paper , Freeman and Torralba showed that the changing light on the wall of a room, filmed with nothing fancier than an iPhone, can be processed to reveal the scene outside the window. Last fall, they and their collaborators reported that they can spot someone moving on the other side of a corner by filming the ground near the corner. This summer, they demonstrated that they can film a houseplant and then reconstruct a three-dimensional image of the rest of the room from the disparate shadows cast by the plant’s leaves. Or they can turn the leaves into a “visual microphone,” magnifying their vibrations to listen to what’s being said.

That visual microphone stuff is amazing, recording a crisp packet with a high-speed camera and then playing the vibrations back like the grooves on a record vibrating the stylus. Your food packaging is always listening.

The Beautiful, Ugly, & Possessive Hearts of Star Wars

If you only read one article about how Star Wars fandom has become a cess-pool of awfulness, then this one will do. Seriously, it’s 12,000 words long and I read it one sitting.

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape

I have a theory that most developments in computers over the last few decades will, in the long term, be shown to be dead ends and by the middle of the century we’ll be using fundamentally the same technology as powered the moon landings, only way more powerful. It’s amazing that the same technology used to load Hungry Horace onto my ZX Spectrum is now storing terabytes of data on tracks 50 nanometres wide, and there’s still ways to go.

Is NASA’s Opportunity Mars Rover Doomed?

I hope not, though it’s had a good ride.

September 12

Lindsay Ellis on YouTube, on Manufacturing Authenticity on YouTube

I discovered Lindsay Ellis a few months ago as this person who does deep-dive video essays on nerdy subjects in a way that isn’t shite and have been hooked ever since. Despite never really being a big follower of deep-dive video essays I now only ever watch cleverly edited straight-to-camera rapid-fire talkings about some minutiae or other by people much younger than me.

Because Lindsay’s style of work is new to me I’ve of course got like 2,000 words in the drafts folder about it, which I will eventually edit down to something succinct like “I like her work because she uses her brain to think about stuff while crafting these wonderfully entertaining packages that remind me of zines in the 1990s”. But that’s for another day.

This video in particular is a bit of a departure because it’s about YouTube itself, the platform on which she and many others present and distribute their work. It’s mostly about the desire for and value given to “authenticity”, which has been around long before YouTube and will be with us long after but which remains fascinating for how impossible it is to define (given our inner selves are often a mystery to us, can we ever truly be authentic?) and for how we feel we know it when we can’t see it.

More pertinently, the combination of YouTube’s culture of authenticity-expectation and it’s aggressively tuned algorithms, does not appear to be providing video producers with a safe working environment, mentally speaking.

In June Polygon published YouTube’s top creators are burning out and breaking down en mass and this week The Guardian released The YouTube stars heading for burnout: ‘The most fun job imaginable became deeply bleak’.

James Bridle calls this algorithmic employment:

[Algorithmic employment] has two main qualities: optimisation and opacity. “Optimisation” - from the employer’s point of view of course - really means the extraction of every possible effort, with no regard to the cost (there are always others to exploit).

But the process is always opaque - and thus confusing, anxiety-inducing, to the employee… selective opacity is a form of power, a deeply oppressive one…

That’s combined, too, with the illusion of choice, whether it’s YouTubers or Uber drivers, or the supposed flexibility of zero-hours contracts. The outsourcing of responsibility. Google, YouTube, and others continue to engineer and implement dystopia for our benefit, if we choose to see it.

What makes the YouTube algoployees different to, say, Deliveroo biker could be the emotional labour required to manufacture the correct levels of authenticity, and to deal with the fallout of that when it lands in places you weren’t expecting.

I discovered this evening that comments on YouTube count as an engagement metric, so videos that have lots of comments get pushed up the sidebar by the algorithm. Added to this, users of YouTube expect to be able to leave comments and if they don’t, they get mad.

I feel like I’ve discovered a new seam of really interesting activity on the internet and it’s all great and awesome, but I’m simultaneously worried about the mental health of these people, and that’s not nice. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it might involve moving off YouTube, if that’s even possible.

Pete’s favourite YouTube accounts of the moment:

Is it wrong that even after all this I’m finding myself thinking seriously about starting a YouTube channel thingy? Something like Pete in the shed with the rabbits. I dunno.

September 3

The danger of meaning

I would comfortably say that I'm often searching for meaning in things. This feels like a good thing to do, to not accept face values but to prod and question and figure out what's actually going on. And upon finding meaning I'm happy and satisfied. My work is done. I can move on.

So I was intrigued, on starting to watch Examined Life - a series of interviews with contemporary philosophers, to come across Avital Ronell's rejection of meaning.

(Sidebar: I know Ronell is apparently what we might call a "controversial" figure and a pretty horrible person, by some accounts, but I'm just interested in this idea of Heidegger's she articulates here.)

It's worth watching, but in essence, meaning makes things satisfying, so we are prone to accept meanings without questioning them because they feel good. But many things don't lend themselves to simple meaning, and that's when we have to work harder, to pay attention to our actions and question the easy but empty meanings that are attached to such things.

I found myself thinking of traffic lights and the language of road signage. It is easy for motorists to read the signage and apply that meaning to the road environment to the exclusion of any messier information that might be around. A green light means go, so we go. We are slaves to meaning.

An intriguing, but rarely implemented, method of traffic calming is to remove as much signage as possible, along with curbs, road markings, crossings, etc. This shared space idea makes driving full of uncertainty because you don't know what anything means. There's no handy light telling you to go and a sign saying at what speed. You have to move your car through this space and anything can happen.

pic via

Ronell seems to be saying we should approach the world like a shared space road, removing all the signage erected by those who control and influence society's rules and moving carefully because anything can happen.

Of course this could lead to paralysis, but I think it's more about being aware that the meaning we assign to something or someone is, by necessity, a massively simplification. They are evil, they can be trusted, they deserve their fate. These simplifications let us get past the issue nice and quickly, but that does not make using them the right thing to do. Nuance is important.

Plenty to ponder.

Examined Life is on Prime at the moment.

September 3

Pretty Trauma

With some trepidation I watched the first episode of season two of The Handmaids Tale the other night. The first season had been very good but I'd heard the next was a bit all-out brutal horrorshow and, oddly enough, I didn't find myself needing that of an evening.

That first episode is pretty brutal and presumably sets the tone for some outright misery. Usually I'm OK with that, but I'm wondering to what end this is all for. The first season mirrored the book and therefore had a coherent arc. There was a point. This next wave is, what, world building? Where's it going?

Obviously that will become clear over time, but there was something about the presentation that slightly unnerved me. It was quite beautiful.

There's a whole thing in film theory (I believe - this is definitely not my area) about the perils of presenting horrifying scenes that you want the viewer to engage with but in doing so make the horrifying thing exciting and alluring. Film, like all visual art, gets its power by showing an abstracted, unreal or hyperreal version of the world using tropes and styles that can detach us as much as involve us. Or something. Maybe an example will help.

In this first episode of Handmaids season 2 the women are forced to stand in a courtyard in the rain holding a rock at arms length as an ongoing punishment for the denouement of season 1. It's basically a torture scene, but it's filmed beautifully. The women are perfectly arranged in a circle and frequently filmed from above, their bright red and white costumes contrasting with the dark bricks.

It is a visually beautiful scene, perfectly staged, cleanly shot. Prior to this was a flashback to the pre-fascist days which is all soft lights and handheld cameras. A contrast is being made, but I'm uneasy about how gorgeous the nightmare looks. How it draws me in. Maybe that's the point? I'm not sure.

I filed all that away in my mind, but then we watched I, Tonya last night, a biopic about ice skater Tonya Harding, which was excellent in many many ways. I particularly liked how the tone threw me off guard. The trailer sets up a light-hearted comic romp about white-trash idiots and the film itself pretty much delivers that sort of film, except it doesn't because this is a story about an abused woman, emotionally by her mother and physically by her husband, ultimately punished by society for something she (probably) didn't do. I'm sitting there thinking, am I supposed to be laughing at this? It's been set up as a funny, there are some genuinely funny bits, but this story is not funny at all. It's a genuine tragedy.

I think I, Tonya plays a bait and switch, promising you a Goodfellas or Logan Lucky and then betraying that with something much darker. The Founder did a similar thing with Michael Keaton's character who you initially root for and by the end feel terrible for ever liking. It's a subtle and tricky thing, to subvert the viewer's experience like that, and it's all the more powerful when it works.

Handmaids doesn't feel like it's doing anything subtle here. It seems to be simply saying "This world is awful. Look how awful it is. Look at it." But to make sure we look they make this awful world look beautiful even when it's supposed to be ugly and brutal. Especially when it's ugly and brutal. And I'm not sure that works in the way they intended.

September 2

Sunday Reads

A currently biweekly digest of longer-form writings and the occasional video I would like to commend to you for a lazy Sunday morning.

The Shape of Space

This extensive look at the geometry of living in environments where up and down don't make sense is packed full of quite wonderful things. Buckminster Fuller made a big deal of us living on "Spaceship Earth" and encouraged shifts in language to reorient ourself as riding on a planet moving through space, but our evolutionary experience is stubbornly locked to a gravity model. Even astronauts on the International Space Station, that great experiment in post-planetary living, orient themselves as if "they are in a very tall building with all the intermediate floors removed." Also of note is an intelligent and detailed look at those 1970s cylindrical space habitats that haunted my childhood.

Russian Cosmism Versus Interstellar Bosses: Reclaiming Full-Throttle Luxury Space Communism

Cosmism is a new term to me and I'm enjoying discovering it. Like many ideas that came from inter-war Europe and post-revolutionary Russia, it's unrealistic and bonkers but highly alluring. And the parallels with the fringe ideologies of our algorithm-weilding masters is quite striking, albeit more optimistic, maybe? Does the left need to "seize back crazed utopic ideas from fascists and Silicon Valley" in order to save the world from Trump? It's certainly worth considering.

How to be human: the man who was raised by wolves

A long-read on Marcos Rodríguez who was abandoned as a child in poverty-stricken Spain and grew up without human contact. But that's just the preamble. The story really happens when he is brought back to civilisation but doesn't have any of the social tools to deal with a culture coming out of Fascism.

It may be no accident that Rodríguez’s case was, for half a century, rather less celebrated: he emerged from the mountains into a country scared to investigate itself for fear of what it might find. There was little appetite for reopening debates about poverty and neglect, or the sale of children into labour, even in the 1970s. It was not until much later, 35 years after Franco had died, in a democracy mature enough to confront its past, that the details and significance of his story were finally embraced.

What does a nuclear bomb blast feel like?

The headline here is soldiers at nuclear bomb tests seeing the bones in their hands as they covered their faces, but the real kick in the guts for me is that they were forced into secrecy for decades and never compensated for being there at all. Oh, these are British soldiers, by the way, dying of leukaemia and fathering deformed babies. This bloody country...

September 1

Chamberlain Clock

On a number of Birmingham's traffic islands you'll find these iron clocks painted green. They're total heritage but because they often have no pedestrian access it's tricky to see them up close. While doing a reccy for my Jewellery Quarter walks this month I crossed over to read the inscription on the clock there and took a photo because it's quite specific.

Joseph Chamberlain is one of the Big Names in this city. Not to be confused with his son Neville of "peace in our time" fame, Chamberlain's mayorship in the 1870s saw one of the great Victorian programmes of municipal socialism, clearing the slums and reducing the blight of poverty, fighting hard against the Conservative establishment to bring about real reform. He was, in short, a local hero, so it's unsurprising that there are countless monuments and memorials to him, not least a public square of equal stature to Victoria's next door.

But he was also a massive Imperialist. Having sorted out Birmingham he went Westminster and became Colonial Secretary in Salisbury's government and brought his paternalist reforming ideas with him.

"I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen... It is not enough to occupy great spaces of the world's surface unless you can make the best of them. It is the duty of a landlord to develop his estate."


And then there were the Boer Wars which he oversaw, including the delightful invention of the concentration camp. These were won and the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in May 1902.

The plaque on the clock is about a two month tour of South Africa from over the Winter of 1902-3, a bridge building, conciliation effort to bring everyone back under the umbrella of the British Empire. Everyone with white skin, that is. Apartheid might not have become official policy until 1948 but it was there in all but name. Blacks were a resource, like the land, and the Boer Wars were effectively about who would control that resource.

The quote on the clock reads: "We have shown that we can be strong and resolute in war; it is equally important to show that we can be strong and resolute in peace." Within a decade white South Africans had negotiated nominal independence and were fully sovereign by 1931.

Chamberlain seems like a massively complicated figure but he marks an interesting moment in the history of progressiveness in the UK. He was in some ways ahead of his time in Birmingham, recognising that the city was only as strong and healthy as its inhabitants and that industry alone could not provide the necessary levels of infrastructure. He, and many others across the country, laid the foundations for the welfare state, and for that we must be grateful.

But he was behind the times when it came to the rest of the world. He believed the hubris of Britain's divine right to rule the waves and their superiority over other races. The 20th century would prove him as wrong as it would prove his civic ideas right.

In Birmingham I think we like to remember the young Chamberlain over the old, just as the English as a whole prefer the old Churchill to the more problematic pre-war version. It makes us feel better about our place in history to concentrate on the good stuff. But we should probably remember the bad stuff too. Birmingham's connection to the evils of empire is less clear cut than, say, Bristol and Liverpool where the slave trade looms large. But it's there, clearly written on the lovingly preserved heritage clocks on the traffic islands.

August 28


Because I only learned to drive a few years ago I've never driven to a new place outside my neighbourhood without some kind of satellite navigational aid. The concept of figuring out a journey and remembering it, or of referring to a paper map or notes while driving is just alien to me.

But sometimes I like to mix it up a bit. As I'm getting close to my destination, especially if it's one I've been to before but not enough times for it to be fully locked in my memory, I like to turn off the satnav and wing it.

Just before doing so I imagine an old Shakespearian actor is telling me to "use the force" and then soon after I say "I'm all right" to an imaginary base of operations. Them my trucker mate rams the black Audi that's been tailgating me off the road and I take the correct final turn into my destination where a princess gives me a medal.

August 27

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

August 25

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.

August 22

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?