Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia

Even ostensibly benign restrictions on freedom of expression can have significant knock-on effects

A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.

Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.

Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

US edition of ‘The Mammoth Book of the Mummy’

An anthology that could do more for mummy fiction than anything in the past decade

Yesterday I was delighted to take receipt of my author’s copy of the US edition of The Mammoth Book of the Mummy. It’s edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books

Writing on This Is Horror, Jake Marley says that Guran has “curated an anthology that could do more for mummy fiction than anything in the past decade, and is sure to bind and capture the imaginations of readers”. He also had this to say about my novella, which is included in the anthology:

Nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, Robert Sharp’s The Good Shabti takes readers from a slave’s experiences in the court of King Mentuhotep to a Crichton-esque sci-fi future where science is being used to give new life to the dead. Fascinating in story and tone, Sharp carries readers through two fascinating worlds to an unexpected and deeply satisfying conclusion.

Thanks Jake! Continue reading “US edition of ‘The Mammoth Book of the Mummy’”

A Table That Shows The UK Region For All Postcode Districts

Are you analysing a bunch of addresses, and want to quickly group them into UK regions? That’s what I was doing recently, and did not find it trivially easy.

A quick visit to your favourite search engine will reveal a list of UK post code areas, and their corresponding towns. But that’s not actually as useful as it might seem. Many large towns and cities take their postcode from another large town or city, often in a different county. Basingstoke (Hampshire) has RG postcodes (Reading, Berkshire), for example.

In London, the problem is reversed. The capital has eight of its own postcodes, but the outer London boroughs have their own. Sorting a diverse list of postcodes does not immediately reveal which are ‘London’.

Sometimes it’s better to group locations by broader UK regions. That’s what I wanted to do with a list of over a thousand UK addresses. Eventually I found a site that (in the hope of selling you a handy map) groups all the postcodes by region. I was able to create a lookup table from that information, which I could then use to sort and count the number of addresses in each region. Continue reading “A Table That Shows The UK Region For All Postcode Districts”

White Comedy and the Prejudice of Language

Inequalities buried deep

Most people bristle at being told that they have a subconscious prejudice, but we’re all a little bit racist.

A couple of months ago I wrote about how deliberately or accidentally obscuring or flipping the attirbution of a quote can reveal our own (or others’) biases. Related: @Eastmad recently guided me to a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, ‘White Comedy’, that elegantly reveals the way our language is stacked against people of colour. Continue reading “White Comedy and the Prejudice of Language”

17776: Native Internet Art

An appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

At the beginning of this month, the U.S. sports website SBnation.com surprised its readers with an unexpected meditation on the game of (American) football. A piece titled ‘17776: What Football Will Look Like In The Future’ was posted to the site, alongside the usual results and recaps of recent baseball and basketball games. But when curious readers clicked on the headline, they were transported fifteen thousand years into the future, and billions of miles into deep space. Over the following weeks, new chapters to the story drew readers into writer Jon Bois’s appreciation of our planet and what it means for humans to play in it.

The characters in the world are very old, possibly immortal. They use their new-found longevity to play and watch long and complex games, usually based around what we 21st century denizens recognise as gridiron football. Several far-future nationwide football games are described, all with a lineage that can be traced back to those we watch today. But all the games a far more extreme and heightened, having evolved over millennia. Just as, with biological evolution, the essential components of a given animal order, family or genus are revealed as they become more pronounced, so those aspects American football that are at the core of the sport are revealed when the future-humans iterate it to a ridiculous degree.

Football's different things to different people. | see this kind of football, the open-world kind, as its end state. The old grid football, the hundred- yard kind, was basically just training wheels. The game was always all about the field, of course. The ground, the Earth. And it was kind of like,
A monologue by Ten, one of the extra-terrestrials
As well as the idea of play, Bois invites us to revel in the vastness and complexity of our planet, and the unique history of each patch of earth. In one particular sequence, I thought of the art of the Boyle Family, who pick random points on the globe and precisely reproduce the square metre of ground that they find there.
World Series
Two panels from the Boyle Family’s ‘World Series’ depicting studies of The Hague (left) and the Central Australian Desert. Installed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2003
I wonder if there's a single place in the whole world that's never had a story. I bet not. I just about guarantee you there's no places like that in America. Every little square of it, every place you stomp your foot, that's where something happened. Something wild, maybe something nobody knows about, but something. You can fall out of the sky and right into some forgotten storybook.    -- recognized by
Another of Ten’s monologues
 
The format goes beyond what one might expect from a piece of online writing. It’s a collision of YouTube video animation, chat room text, and Google Earth renderings. One thought I had after reading a couple of chapters was that it should not be surprising that the format is surprising. Modern technology offers countless ways to render a narrative, and all Bois has done is to take a fairly well established format—a chat room script—and illustrate it with animations from a common online tool. It is not particularly radical, but the way we publish online (both the format of digital content, and it’s graphic design) has become so formulaic that even small and obvious departures from the norm suddenly feel innovative. In a Q&A, the author himself puts it very well:

I could go really, really long on this answer. I’ll keep it short: There are countless different ways to write, and things and ideas to write about. And the Internet offers a kaleidoscope of different formats, media, tools, sights, and sounds to tell your stories. And most of us are not even trying to scrape the surface of any of it. We’ve got to start thinking of the Internet as something more than a glow-in-the-dark newspaper.

On Facebook, a friend of mine writes:

it is such a brilliant piece of work, creative and touching and imaginative and smart, and it could only work here, in this medium. Is there anything else like that? I’m not sure.

There are precedents. First, in the Q&A, Bois cites Calvin and Hobbes as an influence on his writing. And there are moments in 17776 that feel exactly like Bill Watterson’s comic strip. In particular, the way in which the three narrators revel in the beauty of (in turn) the Earth, human endeavour and the game of American football, could easily be something Calvin comes out with on one of his meditative sledge rides.

Calvin and Hobbes, 9 November 1987. Bill Watterson

I think a better comparison than Calvin and Hobbes is with the xkcd web comic. If Jon Bois is not a fan of Randall Munroe’s twice-weekly panels, I’d be astonished. xkcd characters often manifest the same geeky wonder at creation that Ten, Juice and finally Nine profess in 17776.

But there is more: xkcd also regularly experiments with form too: 1446: ‘Landing’ and 1190: ‘Time’ are long form animation; while 1110: ‘Click and Drag’ is a 10 gigapixel image. 1416: ‘Pixels’ plays with the idea of fractals in order to sell us a book.

From the stories, I expected the world to be sad...
The first three panels from xkcd ‘Click and Drag’.

When ‘Click and Drag’ was first published, I wrote:

This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare. While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online. The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.

We can call 17776 ‘native’ internet art too, I think. The combination of text, GIFs and video only really work when read in a browser. I suppose it could be translated into a single YouTube video but that would be an act of adaptation, just as the ‘whole world’ images that xkcd fans have created of comic 1110 are an adaptation (and a spoiler) for the online version.

Projects like 17776 remind us that while the game of football may be old, the Internet is still a very new medium. It’s a delight to live in this moment of innovation, and to watch artists experiment within it.

I regret not being more experimental myself.

A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas

I change my mind, therefore the ‘market place’ exists.

Last week I asserted that the ‘marketplace of ideas’, a primary justification for the concept of freedom of expression, probably doesn’t exist. I ended my post with a promise to present some arguments in favour of the so-called market place, and how the concept could be rehabilitated.

The first such argument begins with a comment I made at the end of my guest appearance on the Kraken podcast in February. Winding up, I made the point that “changing your mind can be euphoric”.

What the reveals, of course, is that I have changed my mind in the past. This entire blog is testimony to how a person might iterate and refine their ideas and politics over a period of time. I can think of many examples where I have come to believe something different to my prior assumptions. And in a few cases, I have made a 180 degree turn in my opinions. Continue reading “A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas”

People Are Sharing This UK Supreme Court Judgment And It’s Democratic AF

The United Kingdom Supreme Court today handed down its judgment in the case of R (UNISON) v Lord Chancellor – a case about the charging of Employment Tribunal Fees. The court ruled that the way the government was charging fees for tribunal claims hampered access to justice, and was therefore unlawful. A defeat for the government and a success for UNISON, the union that brought the case.

The Court’s judgment [PDF] is 42 pages long, but lawyers on Twitter have been urging everyone to read the section entitled ‘The constitutional right of access to the courts’. Lord Reed, writing the unanimous verdict, reminds us that access to the courts is “inherent in the rule of law” and that the people, even those of slender means, must be able to access the courts in order to have the laws passed by parliament enforced. Continue reading “People Are Sharing This UK Supreme Court Judgment And It’s Democratic AF”

Thompson Airways, Syria Speaks and Thoughtcrime

My colleague Jo Glanville was on the Victoria Derbyshire programme last Friday, condemning the treatment of Faizah Shaheen by Thompson Airways.

Faizah Shaheen and Joanna Gosling
Faizah Shaheen (pictured) and Jo Glanville were interviewed by Joanna Gosling on the BBC Victoria Derbshire Programme. You can watch the interview on the BBC iPlayer until 19 August 2017.
Last year, Faizah was reported to counter-terrorism police by Thompson Airways staff after she was seen reading Syria Speaks, a book about the art and culture that has persisted in Syria despite the hideous civil war that has ravaged the country.

Some viewers watching the programme were extremely dismissive of Faizah’s complaint and the wider freedom of expression concerns that Jo Glanville raised. Continue reading “Thompson Airways, Syria Speaks and Thoughtcrime”

Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal

The rigid UK visa requirements can prove an impossible hurdle for some artists

An Iranian childrens’ book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi has been denied a visa to visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Publishers have branded the decision “disgusting”.

The Bookseller broke the story and I’m quoted in Heloise Wood’s report, commenting for English PEN. Continue reading “Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal”