We’re All Puritans Now

The distinguishing feature of puritanism is ‘an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience’

Its Banned Books Week, a time for all the family to gather round the dinner table to discuss free speech and censorship. One book that often comes up in such conversations is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s.

I have been reading the Wikipedia page for the trial, and found this marvellous section on the testimony of academic Richard Hoggart, who was subjected to a snide cross-examination by the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones: Continue reading “We’re All Puritans Now”

The contents of my ‘draft posts’ folder

Oh Lordy Lordy, I have 53 separate blog posts sitting unpublished in the drafts section of this website.

Oh Lordy Lordy, I have 53 separate blog posts sitting unpublished in the drafts section of this website. None are in a state to be published, but I thought I would post the titles for your examination.

Ten years ago, Michelle Kazprzak did the same thing, which is where I got the idea. She wrote:

It’s pure blog purgatory, where I toy with some of these posts once every few months, but they never reach a postable state. In fact, most of these drafts are just titles, with no body to them at all, or body text consisting of one line to remind me what the post should be about. This paucity of text combined with the passage of time (every day a small sip of the water of Lethe), makes the probability that these posts will ever be completed quite low. The titles of these unfinished posts confront me each time I open my blog software as a series of blazing headlines demanding attention. The last time I looked at them all, it occurred to me they might be worth sharing in and of themselves

Just as ancient shopping lists give historians insights into lives past, so this litany may actually be a good representation of my addled mind.

Perhaps other people should do the same? Continue reading “The contents of my ‘draft posts’ folder”

On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi and I regret none of it.

As the extent of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people becomes clear, many people have harshly criticised the response of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Facebook, one of my friends even expressed shame at having campaigned for her.

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I picketed the Myanmar Embassy on a few occasions (see my photos here) and even addressed a rally for Burmese dissidents in Trafalgar Square (from whence the banner image at the top of this blog). I also collaborated with the Burma Campaign on #64forSuu, a campaign to celebrate her 64th birthday, while she was still under house arrest. On her release in 2012, I was invited to attend an event with her and other dissidents (including Zarganar) at the Royal Festival Hall.

I regret none of this. Continue reading “On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi”

VLOOKUP Changed My Life

The number of people-hours lost to inefficient spreadsheet usage makes me shudder.

After my post about postcodes earlier this week, a couple of people asked me what a ‘lookup table’ was in that context. I thought I’d write something quick about their use in the context of spreadsheets, because they’re such a timesaver.

You can probably divide the world into people who have no idea about VLOOKUP tables in spreadsheets, and those who use them every day. Until recently I was firmly in the former category, but now I’m part of the latter group. Continue reading “VLOOKUP Changed My Life”

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.