Spring Is Here

Yesterday I left the house — well, I left the house for ten minutes to get water and cigarettes and that was the only time I went out yesterday because I had to process a tv pitch and movie treatment notes and re-listen to a bunch of audition tapes before actually writing a word, and —

Yesterday,  I left the house with only a henley and an open shirt on my top half, and I didn’t get snowed on or cut through by Arctic wind. I did, however, catch a look at myself in a shop window and my god that winter weight has to go

Yesterday, I left the house with only a henley and an open shirt on my top half and it was crisp and clean without being properly cold, for the first time this year. Spring has finally happened.  If it stays like this for another ten days, I might even shake the cold and the damp out of my bones, where it starts settling by February.

I just felt like noting that the world is starting up again. I like marking the seasons and cycles, these days. Soon I’ll be able to work outdoors, travel light and change hue to actual white from blue/grey.

Image from a couple of months ago, when the girls went out in the snow but decided a snowman would be just too boring.

 

LEFT BANK: Fear & Loathing In The City Of Lights

(Ernest Hemingway, in a jeep) stopped once more, this time in front of 7 rue des Grands Augustins. Picasso was not in – he was still with Maya and Marie-Thérèse. The concierge asked Hemingway if he wanted to leave something with his note. Without a pause, Hemingway went straight to his jeep and came back with a wooden case full of hand grenades on which he wrote, ‘To Picasso from Hemingway’ and handed it to the concierge.

LEFT BANK by Agnes Poirier is a witty, sharp-edged but not unaffectionate history of the Parisian cultural scene 1940-50.  It is filled with lovely anecdotes like the above.

Also, this was, um, interesting:

Sartre took fame in his stride, not that he looked for it – rather the opposite. This sudden glory felt to him idiotic and a high price to pay. He had wanted to write novels, to be a writer, to be a genius living in obscurity like Baudelaire. Events had decided otherwise and sentenced him to be an outspoken intellectual living in the glare of public attention. Nobody would ever remember what he wrote but only what he was and what he said – in other words, he would be remembered as a public intellectual, not quite the same thing as the great writer he had once wanted to be. ‘From now on, he would put the absolute in the ephemeral, he would lock himself up in the present and in the time he lived in, he would accept to perish entirely with his epoch,’ wrote Beauvoir. What extraordinary clairvoyance and lucidity. Indeed, Les Chemins de la liberté would be his last work of fiction. Sartre would sacrifice himself to commenting and trying to influence the world.

This is exceptionally clear-eyed, cold and well stated.

The book may bear useful comparison with Sarah Bakewell’s excellent AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFE, a book that is notably kinder to everyone (except Heidegger) than Poirier’s.  Poirier observes many of the players with a somewhat jaundiced eye – her distrust of the dancing phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty is almost palpable, whether he’s roasting Koestler or creeping on Juliette Greco.  Poirier’s observations of the women of the Left Bank are generally warm, however, and conducted with a fond detail that admirably fills out the female stories that tend to get erased or subsumed among the Sartres and Picassos and Camus’ of the time.  (What is the plural of a Camus?  Camuses?  Camusii?)  The heroes of the French Resistance in Paris had people of the arts among them, and some died for that, and their stories are worth learning.

Anyway, this book is great.

LEFT BANK, Agnes Poirier (UK) (US)

Network Effects

Some time in the past, I read that Charles Dickens was attacked by contemporaneous critics for what they saw as an overuse of coincidence in his work.  What they missed was that Dickens was one of the first people writing in a sustained way about life in early-modern cities. When you stack enough people in a single place, at an unprecedented density, confluences happen at a very increased rate. It’s the network effect.

They used to say that if your kink is one in a million, and you live in New York City, there are seven other people just like you.  Network effect.

Old Terence McKenna used to say “find the others” to his little convened groups in bookstores or retreats, and “someone in this room probably has what you need,” because the people in those particular interest clouds were geographically scattered and only connected by slow long-distance pre-digital communications.

“Finding the others” is a keyword search now.  Network effect is the tag cloud casting the long dark shadow over the conversation.

We’re still driving cars without having learned how to not kill people with them.  Pretty much the same thing with social media.

 

READING: NEW DARK AGE, James Bridle (UK) (US)

 

Re-Hermit

The signal for when too much is happening is, for me, very simple.  It’s when my phone tries to play eight notification sounds in the same second and has a seizure.  That happened Friday.  Yes, Friday was Good Friday, which I understand is a holiday in some places.

It’s hard for me to describe how my brain works.  I mean, it’s hard for most writers, I think?  I dimly remember Fraction in CASANOVA likening his mentation to running around with a stick dipped in honey to catch butterflies or something.  I can run a lot of windows on my screen, but eventually the screen fills up and I’m doing more clicking than viewing just to see everything that’s going on in my head.  Which means that less is going on in my head because I’m doing more clicking than looking.  Something like that.  Cognitive overload, which eventually triggers the hypertensive stress and the blood pressure fuckery if I let it go on too long.

Try this, for a minute.  Try to describe your experience of how your brain works.  Think of a metaphor that works for you.  Then describe your experience of the thing that stops it working.  Explain your brain to yourself.  It’s a good way to surface the problems, and perhaps the ways to solve them.  The inside of your own head is really pretty amazing in ways that are unique to you. Even the annoying or “bad” parts. Sit and breathe and watch it go, and then paint a picture of it with words.  That’s all we do, here in hermit country.  Paint with words. Sit down next to me.1

 

 

On The Sobering Uses Of Literature

Jean-Paul Sartre was working furiously on his second play, Les Mouches (The Flies), while finishing his major philosophy treatise, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness). Jean Paulhan had convinced Gallimard to publish the 700-page essay even if the commercial prospects were extremely limited. However, three weeks after it came out in early August, sales took off. Gallimard was intrigued to see so many women buying L’Être et le néant. It turned out that since the book weighed exactly one kilogram, people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.

From the excellent LEFT BANK by Agnès Poirier  (UK) (US)

 

 

New Computer Who Dis

My four-year-old warrior of a Thinkpad started sending me warnings of a failing hard drive last month. Being in the middle of writing a tv series is not the best time to have a hard drive failure.  So today I am writing on a new Thinkpad.  The old one – which was brilliant and Just Worked – was a 14-inch machine. This one is a 15.6-inch machine, because I liked the idea of having just a little bit more screen. I forgot that the keyboard would come with a numberpad.  Which 14-inch machines generally don’t. So everything I have four-year muscle-memory of is shoved a couple of inches to the left.  This means that I’ve been typing like a seal for a day, trying to burn in the new memory while hitting \ instead of the shift key every twenty seconds.

The old machine is in my desk drawer, right under the desktop the new one is sitting on.  It still works.  It will probably work forever. The hard drive failure warning was a test of love and loyalty. I have failed it.  I am a monster.  I will die alone, with only the voiceless, heartless blank stare of a new laptop that is wrong by two inches to witness my lonely, deserved passing.

Below is a recent photo of the old laptop and its battle scars.

The new machine is a Lenovo T580 touchscreen version.  (UK) (US)

 

VOID BLACK SHADOW: Return Of The Space Witch

VOID BLACK SHADOW by Corey J White is the sequel to KILLING GRAVITY, being the continuing science fiction tale of Mars Xi, an actual no-shit SPACE WITCH.  That probably sold the books to some of you all on its own.  (Space witch, complete with a cat-like gengineered-weirdo familiar that, in my head, always looks more like a ferret for some reason.)

VOID BLACK SHADOW was, for me, a really fast read.  It just clatters along, and it packs a lot in – a lot more than I originally expected.  Every time you think it’s going to settle into “Oh, so this is where the rest of the book is set,” White just blasts through it and throws a bunch of new stuff at you. White is due to be discovered as a John Scalzi-like crowdpleaser with sharper teeth and a real flair for the Big Stuff.

VOID BLACK SHADOW is a wild, explosive ride through the deep dark.  You’ll like it.

(I did a cover blurb for KILLING GRAVITY, full disclosure etc etc)

VOID BLACK SHADOW, Corey J White  (UK) (US)

 

 

The Short Things

There are a lack of small things in my media diet.  I would dearly love more five-minute podcasts.  I’m sure they’re harder to monetise – some podcasts seem to take five minutes just listing and talking-up their sponsors.  And, yes, podcasts fill an important role in extensive, unbounded and deep conversation not limited by standard programming slots.  But innovation comes in the short things too.  Maybe it doesn’t need to be a novel or six hours of audio or 45 minutes on YouTube.  It can be a novella, a pamphlet, a clip or a five-minute podcast too.  Find the shape that the piece actually fits, rather than the shape the current culture expects it to be. You might be more likely to finish it. Hell, I might be more likely to finish it.

Brought to you by the older gentleman who recently got sent a book that appears to be five fucking inches thick.

 

READING: New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future – James Bridle (UK) (US)

 

Amazon Echo Spot – Jeff Bezos Finally Invades My House

So Jeff Bezos, that iguana-chewing bastard, finally got me.  I have an Amazon microphone product in my house.  Specifically, the Echo Spot.

I’d considered other Echo devices before, but they were either too big or not functional enough or otherwise just didn’t seem to fit into my life and needs.

The first thing to note about the Echo Spot is that the camera can be disabled, and the second is that there’s a hard button on top to kill the microphones.

Sadly, you cannot yet invent a new wakeword-name for the device, so I still cannot call a home computing device “Zen” and have it answer back. You get a choice of four, and so I selected “Echo.”  “Echo, play Berlin Community Radio.”  It just does it.  No settings, no farting around with installing TuneIn Radio or even voice-training the device. You can add Skills with the phone app, which doesn’t seem to be a well-populated or well-designed ecosystem.  But Alexa, as a voice UI system, works so much better than Siri for me that I was actually quite shocked.

It’s interesting to think of it as a microphone connected to a network of Amazon server farms.  Talking to a machine-learning-leveraged spreadsheet with your name on it.

The Spot takes up a space on my shelf roughly analogous to a coffee mug or old-style alarm clock. The circular screen amuses me, because, in the science fiction tv shows I grew up with, videophones were always circular for some reason. (And this does have vide0-calling function, hence the camera.) I can stream tv through this thing, which, to me, is funny as all hell.

It is, for me, a surprisingly useful little thing for a lot of the side actions I’d usually have to shift focus for. I’d like the screen to be a little more customisable for glanceable information, and at least some human attempt to curate the Skills ecosystem, but, for me, this is the Echo device that justifies the Echo strategy.

Amazon Echo Spot (UK) (US)

 

The Book Of Joan: A Fable Of The End

“Men are among the loneliest creatures. They lose their mothers and cannot carry children, and have nothing to comfort themselves with but their vestigial cockular appendages. This is perhaps the reason they move ever warward when they are not moving fuckward.”

THE BOOK OF JOAN by Lidia Yuknavitch is a science fiction story about women. Women who love, women who hate, women who kill, women who destroy. It’s a story about what happens after the end of the world, where (another) other-humanly elite has gone to orbit to live out sexless, loveless lives of bizarre art and ritual.

Christine Pizan, a denizen of the orbiting station that may be all that’s left of the human race, is an artist of skin.  Through a braille-like process of branding and skin grafts, she wears stories on her skin.  She is the Book of Joan — Joan being Joan of Dirt, the superhuman child soldier who fought the good fight down below and was burned at the stake for it. The term used for Joan‘s superhuman condition is engenderine – from engender, whose more archaic definition is “to cause to be born.”

Any book that starts with a quote from Doris Lessing’s mighty SHIKASTA has me on its side.

The medieval writer Christine de Pizan’s last work was an eulogy of Joan of Arc.

The station is run by a mad misogynist called Jean de Men.  De Pizan’s intellectual status in her time was partly made by her dissection of the misogynist writer Jean de Meun. Not being a student of the period, these are things I learned after reading the bookJoan of Dirt is an obvious avatar of Joan of Arc, but I didn’t know the rest. It didn’t make the bookany less fascinating to me.

The hunger for love replaced the hunger for god or science. The hunger for love became an opiate. In a world that had lost its ability to procreate, the story of love became paramount. “It was a wish like the moth’s wish for flame. It was a wish to fuck the sun. To be burned alive inside a story where our bodies could still want and do what bodies want to do.”

It’s not a happy book, I warn you.  There are moments of joy that blaze through it, but, contra to the first quote above, it’s a book about war and women, and birth and the earth. It’s a huge fable about the end of the world, told with pieces of history. It is ambitious, frequently beautiful, and weirdly haunting.

THE BOOK OF JOAN, Lidia Yuknavitch (UK) (US)