A Meeting By The River

Over on Medium, I have posted a short satire on the PRISM programme:

When he arrived, my agency source was out of breath. He had clearly been running to make our appointment.
“Busy day at the office?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the river.
“You have no idea,” he panted, as he slumped onto the other end of the bench.
I dropped the newspaper into the space between us, and slid it towards him. Edward Snowden’s righteous face blinked out from the front page.
“He looks like something out of one of those vampire movies for girls” said my contact.
I ignored the diversion and got straight to the point.“Why didn’t you tell me?”

You can read the whole thing on Medium.
Continue reading “A Meeting By The River”

Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing

My virtual meeting with Sam has prompted a meandering journey through a few websites dedicated to the stylish presentation of text. I thought I would note the links in one place: first, merely to note the trend; and second because it will aid discussions with colleagues over how to present our own literary content on the fantastic PEN Atlas.
First: Medium is a relatively new site created by Twitter founder Evan Williams. Writers can create beautiful looking stories and essays very quickly. The site has the clean and spacious aesthetic that has become fashionable recently. Design led by the need for readbility and usability on tablets, mobile phones, while also providing a reading experience on desktop and laptop monitors that is easy on the eye. I was delighted that my request for an early-bird account was granted by Medium’s Director of Content, Kate Lee, and I have just uploaded a story to the site to try out the composition features.
You can read ‘Northern Line Lovers‘ on Medium (and if you like the story, please hit the ‘recommend’ button below the text). I think I will post my other ‘Ficciones‘ there at some point. Continue reading “Notes on design trends for long-form and creative writing”

Alan Turing Pardon: Why So Narrow?


The Alan Turing Statutory Pardon Bill has been published on the Houses of Parliament website.
Turing was a mathematician and philosopher who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and invented electronic computing. He was also a homosexual, and was convicted of ‘Gross indecency between men’ in 1952. As a result he lost his security clearance, was subjected to chemical castration, and committed suicide when he was only 42.
This statutory pardon seeks to atone for the Government’s appalling treatment of a national hero.
Nevertheless, the idea of such a narrow pardon worries me a little. The implication seems to be that Turing gets a pardon because he achieved so much. But that should not be how the law and justice works. What about all those under-achievers and ordinary men who were convicted under the same iilliberal and unjust law? Why do they not get a pardon too?

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

To 'publish' means giving up control

I had not read the term ‘fauxtroversy’ before now, but I think Dorian Lynskey uses it perfectly in his New Statesman article about the Kent Youth Commissioner Paris Brown. 17 year-old Paris has been forced to resign from her appointment, following ‘exposure’ of inappropriate tweets… Some written years ago. The views expressed would be surprising coming from the feed of, ooh, let us say, a thirty-something blogger and campaigner for PEN. But not from a young teenager. Outbursts, inarticulacy, immature, ill-thought-out and prejudiced views are as much a part of adolescence as spots, puberty, resentment of your parents, and fancying inappropriate, unattainable people.
The great thing about voicing ridiculous and ill-considered political views, is that people challenge them. There is nothing like being scrutinised on a stupid, unsophisticated political position to realise that life and politics are nuanced and complex.
Continue reading “To 'publish' means giving up control”

Tap Essays: Native Internet Art


I enjoyed this short essay promoting Lauren Leto’s book. It’s honest and (I assume) true to the book it seeks to promote.
It’s also presented in an interesting manner, native to the digital world. I wonder if would be as engaging if it were on a couple of pages (either printed or HTML). Probably not.
This type of presentation is not new. Last year Robin Sloane created a ‘tap essay’ called Fish that was published as an iPhone app. Like Leto’s essay, there is no back button, which (according to this Wired review by David Dobbs) provokes the reader to read more closely.
I would say this is another type of native Internet art… although the tap essay format is analogous to picture books that have few words to a page, or stylised essays like Marshall Mcluhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Continue reading “Tap Essays: Native Internet Art”

A Thousand Smart Phones Glowing in the Square

Take a look at this image.

Smart Phones in St Peter's Square
Smart Phones in St Peter’s Square

It is St Peter’s Square, Rome, on a Wednesday evening in March, as Pope Francis was introduced to the Faithful.  I think perfectly captures our time and obsessions and it should be the definitive image of this particular event.
I continue to be obsessed with this sort of thing: A mass of people all taking a photograph, simultaneously, of the same historical moment. It seems people (myself included) have an obsession with recording their own version of a shared moment… Even if their version of the sight (in this case, a pope) is grainy, tiny, and out of focus… And even if we can guarantee without a shadow of doubt that a better, professionally captured image, will be available.
People would rather watch the special moment through their viewfinder, than with their own eyes.
(I said I included myself among those who indulge in this weird practice, and I meant it. My closest even encounter with the Queen, at an opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, was experienced entirely through the view-finder of a Super-8mm cine camera).
I think the image above (which, ironically, I had to re-photograph from the Metro free newspaper because I could not find it online) has extra resonance, however. The glowing screens look a little like candles. In years past, I’m sure the Catholic faithful would have indeed held vigil by candle-light as they waited for the ‘Habemus Papum’ announcement. So the constellation of smart-phones here provides a sort of visual pun, the twenty-first century intruding on a centuries-old ritual.

Google Reader is Dead, Long Live RSS

Irritatingly, Google Reader is to be discontinued. It’s an RSS reader web app, which over the past few years has become a kind of industry standard. I use it to read blogs, but others fell in love with it as a social network. Many people have said that Google have made a huge mistake in sacrificing an organic social network in favour of the failing, centrally planned monstrosity that is Google+.
Despite the fact I use Google Reader a lot, I think it’s demise is probably a good thing. Within hours of the announcement there were plenty of posts published, telling me about alternatives like Feedly or Newsblur. And I was won over by Marco Armet (creator of the brilliant Istapaper) who said:

Now, we’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind, and there’s no immediately obvious alternative. We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade. … It may suck in the interim before great alternatives mature and become widely supported, but in the long run, trust me: this is excellent news.

There is one more thing: Google Reader managed to force a large chunk of the RSS feeds through a single, cloud-based server run by a single company. This was bad. Many of the reading apps out there were not really RSS readers. They were just Google Reader readers!
If you have read any of the writings of Dave Winer (credited with inventing RSS), you will know that one of its virtues is that it is a decentralised tool for publishing. Anyone can publish a feed for their website (or for anything application or machine, it just needs to generate XML information about what it is doing). Anyone can subscribe to that RSS page. It makes no sense for an intermediary like Google to be in the middle of that relationship.
Torrent technology is similarly decentralised. Information is saved in multiple places at once, seeded my more than one person. Users connect directly with each other, unmediated by what a particular web company chooses to let you see or download.  These technologies are in the decentralised, democratising spirit of the Internet, of users communicating directly with each other, without interfernce from a Government or Corporate behemoth that monitors that communication, and imposes its own restrictions on what can or cannot be communicated.

The Kitschies and Progressive Fiction

Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre
Nick Harkaway with his Red Tentacle. Photo by Sarah McIntyre

This week I was at The Kitschies, a set of awards for “progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre literature.”  Its creators, Jared and Anne of the Pornokitsch website and Pandaemonium Fiction (my publishers, no less) rightly eschew the word ‘best’ when giving the awards.  ‘Best’ is a devalued term in when it comes to awards, as implies an objectivity that a judging panel cannot possibly hope to achieve.
I compiled a Storify summary of the event, pulling photos and comments from social media.
The winner of the Red Tentacle award for a novel was Nick Harkaway for his book Angelmaker.  On his blog, Nick has posted a long article on what he thinks ‘progressive’ might mean in terms of fiction in general, and sci-fi/fantasy genre literature in particular. He says that such progressive fiction “It is a fiction which connects the inner human future with everything it must have around it, and recognises that the two develop together.”
Continue reading “The Kitschies and Progressive Fiction”

Netflix knows I am just a sheep

Never have I felt as much like a sheep, a follower, an automaton, a mindless drone, a bundle of predictable synapses, as when I read this paragraph:

For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

Yep. That’s me. God, I am so predictable that people are making a lot of money mining my honed, considered and long thought through preferences (that just happen to be exactly the same as millions of others).
I feel slightly humiliated. And yet, I am still looking forward to watching more episodes of House of Cards this week. A lot of the time, we choose to be manipulated, so long as we are entertained.
Later in the article, Andrew Leonard sounds a note of caution:

If Netflix perfects the job of giving us exactly what we want, when and how will we be exposed to things that are new and different, the movies and TV shows we would never imagine we might like unless given the chance? Can the auteur survive in an age when computer algorithms are the ultimate focus group? And just how many political dramas starring Kevin Spacey can we stand, anyway?

Does Star Wars Prove That The Universe is Finite?

Star Wars Poster
Star Wars Poster

I’ve been thinking about the way languages are portrayed in the Star Wars film franchise, and what this says about the universe in which the adventures take place.
Some films portray all languages as English. This often happens in war and action films, where you’ll have German World War II officers or Russian spies speaking in accented English.
However, many English language films and television series choose to portray the other languages realistically, which involves subtitles (at least, when the dialogue is crucial).
In the Star Trek franchise, the Starfleet heroes encounter alien races every week. The problem is cleverly explained by the use of a Universal Translator (apparently built in to the little space ship emblem on the officers’ jerseys) which uses sophisticated AI to simultaneously translate the aliens’ words. There is even an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Universal Translator unexpectedly kicks in, thereby alterting the Enterprise Crew to the presence of a bizarre life-form, where they had perceived only crystals. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series solves the language problem in a similar way. Arthur Dent puts a Babel Fish in his ear, allowing him to understand all alien languages perfectly.
By contrast, Star Wars introduces no such trickery. Each alien race has its own language, and we often see subtitles when characters like Greedo or Jabba the Hut are speaking. R2D2 and Chewbacca speak languages that are unintelligible to the audience, but at least the main characters have learnt to converse with them. C3PO’s raison d’être is as a protocol droid, familiar in millions of languages.
What does this say about the English used in Star Wars? Well, since all the alien languages are rendered as one might hear them, with no concessions to the audience, then we can assume that the language we hear spoken by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is also as we would hear them. The actors are not speaking English as a cheat for the audience. They are speaking English because that is the language that these characters actually speak. Continue reading “Does Star Wars Prove That The Universe is Finite?”