God, I hate websites

Am currently dicking around, as I do every few years, flitting between WordPress, Squarespace and something I might make myself. Needless to say, it’s all going horribly wrong.

And Trump’s being inaugurated tomorrow. Bodes ill.

I went to Futurebooks 16 and thought some things

Futurebooks is the part of The Bookseller that, unsurprisingly, deals with the future of books. This one day conference was held on December 2nd in London and had three events running concurrently under one roof: Futurebooks, EdTech (about education technology) and an Audiobooks strand.

This was the first conference I’d ever been to in a professional capacity, so that was pretty exciting. I was a little dazzled by the buffet, the free (free!) coffee and heavily-branded tote bag that was thrust into my hand on arrival.

But I got over that.

Books & Video

Everyone says video is the big thing. The first keynote speaker told us that it was a video-first world and I can’t really deny it. People will wait 2 seconds for a video to load and if it doesn’t, they’ll go somewhere else. Shocking. Except not, because that’s exactly how I feel about it. I don’t work in marketing, but I openly mock Youtube adverts that haven’t told me what to product is within the 5 second skip portion.

But what does video meant for books? No-one’s quite sure. I’ve never really understood book trailers, but major publishers invest heavily in the,m, so I guess there must be something to them. Still, it feels like an odd fit to me, like releasing a 7 inch single of music to promote your new mime show. But anyway.

Practical tip was to format video as square, so portrait landscape wasn’t an issue. He then said that this was going to be redundanet soon because of snapchat spectacles and this:

Everyone went “ooh!” at seamless video rotation and orientation changes, without fully appreciating the horror of people wearing cameras on their faces all the time. I’m very much in two minds about this development. The idea of responsive framing is great for handheld amateur video, but I feel like I can hear thousands of professional cinematographers weeping in the background.

I do understand the pull towards video, I just not sure it’s something to be embraced. This probably makes me Canute. Perhaps it’s better to say that I haven’t seen it done well, yet. Like all the scepticism I may express here (and there’s more to come), it’s more a statement that I’m yet to be convinced, but perhaps want to be.

VR, AR & Books

Very much the buzz of the events, even if no-one was quite sure why. All the keynote speakers mentioned it to a greater or lesser extent, and it felt very much that this was being touted as the Next Big Thing.

I didn’t tweet much during the event because it always make me feel like a tit. One of the things I did comment on (and later delete, because I thought perhaps it was a little rude) was that I didn’t understand the rationale for taking a cheap, accessible medium that relies on the user’s imagination and trying to convert it into an expensive, technical one that limits everything to one costly, functionally limited one.

The only crossover I could see between books and VR were that they were essentially solitary experiences. But books can be shared, read aloud and so on, whereas the VR helmet makes it inherently more introverted because unlike a book, which can be read anywhere, the VR process requires you to do the quivalent of lock yourself in a darkened room to experience something.

Augmented Reality (AR) seemed to have more traction and there was some talk by a guy from Carlton Books, which supplements their licenced titles with app interactions that make dinosaurs and whatnot leap out of the page if you view them through your phone/tablet. It looks cool, it’s certainly an attention grabber, but I am dubious about the longevity. Furthermore, I don’t like the idea that this is another part of the world that is being shrunk down to within the frame of a smart screen. It’s not enough to view real life events by shrinking them down to the five inches diagonal widow of your phone, but now you’re supposed to read books through them, too.

At this point, I would also mention of the tech pitches I watched, which was for Novel Effect, which promises to ‘make storytime magic’ with an app that listens to you read aloud and plays an ambient soundtrack and sound effects in time. The response in the room (and by one of the judges) was that this took away one of the most fun aspects of reading to children – namely, making the sound effects yourself. Storytime already is magic, you plum. Adding library music doesn’t do that – stories do.

This is the thing that always gets me about the progress of books. Books are books. I absolutely believe in the idea that you should try and expand your readership beyond just “book people”, but I don’t think jamming shittier versions of other mediums in between your pages are the way to do it. Kids who don’t read aren’t going to be convinced by crappier versions of the games they already have on their phone. I know the argument that it could be considered a gateway, that interest in one book leads to enquiries about others, but I really don’t see that happening in the case of these licensed Jurassic World books.

The final keynote speaker, Jamal Edwards of SBTV, has a much more compelling example of bringing in new readers. His 99p “levels”, released weekly during the school summer holidays show a much better understanding of the marketplace and the resistance to reading. Inserting challenges into the text is a better understanding of gamification than low-poly tyrannosaurs made in Unity 3D.

Mount Improbable

When the team from Penguin won the technical innovation prize, we laughed at them for all wearing what appeared to be company issue uniform of skinny jeans and tight black sweaters.

“Are they supposed to look like penguins?” my boss snarked, while I pointed out that we were only two rows back and they could probably hear us.

Later in the day, they did a presentation about what theyd actually done and – holy shit – I would have given them a prize for that and pretty much everything else I could think of.

For the anniversary of Dawkin’s key books, they produced new editions that use computer code written by Dawkins to demonstrate how evolution works. Updating this to modern day javascript, they not only created a webtoy (found at www.mountimprobable.com), but also used it to generate a different, unique cover for each copy of the book.

This floored me, to be honest. Very cool, both in concept and execution. It made me think I should really get more serious about coding, but I’ve been down that road before and I’m not sure I’m ready for that sort of heartbreak.

Misc

There was a lot of other stuff there, both interesting and not-so. More than anything, I got the sense that it was possible to do exciting things with books (but I sort of knew that already). Overall, I got the sense that the further you stray from the core benefits of books, the less successful you are. Augmented or virtual reality can’t be as powerful as the images you create in your mind.

The future of books is… books.

Perhaps Trump is Obama

Both inexperienced in conventional politics, both exactly what one half of the US wishes would be president and the other half fears the most. Perhaps it’s just the Right’s turn. It concerns me that, with all three houses going Red, it’s dependent on Republican conscience to keep the more horrific policies from being enacted. Perhaps that’s what’s needed – a chance for representatives to remember what that job title actually means and to think about what they stand for, rather than ‘not Obama’.

By and large, people are just trying to do what they think is right. It’s easy to lose sight of that, particularly when the stakes seem so large. I guess Conservatives think the economy and free market must be protected at all costs, that this one issue trumps (sorry) all others. Maybe they’re right. When I think “I would have preferred anyone but him”, I have to remember that millions of people felt the same way during the past eight years.

Let’s see what happens next.

Steve Dillon RIP

It’s been a few days since I heard about the passing of Steve Dillon, one of the artists I most strongly associate with my years reading 2000AD. I always liked his clean, minimalist style. His Dredd stripped the character down to his bare essentials – shoulderpads, helmet, chin and snarl. I could never really draw, but if I could, I would have wanted to have those clean lines and effortless use of white space. I’m not someone who tends to dwell on art. I want to take it in quickly and move the story on and in this respect, none of the other 2000AD artists could match him (except, perhaps, Steve Yeowell, whose art on Zenith is still some of my favourite B&W inked work ever, in any form).

I had one of the Titan collections of Judge Dredd (20, I believe) that had all its stories illustrated by Dillon. I still have massive affection Alabamy Blimps and the Fightin’ Feudin’, Feedin’, Flatin’ McCoys, as well as Big Mama with her hungry smile and jaunty bowler hat.

Although he went on to work for the American companies, I didn’t really follow his work there. He worked mainly on Preacher with Garth Ennis (a writer I’m really not fond of) and Punisher (a character I actively despise). Added to this, his art never sat well with me when rendered in colour. To me, it was always best in black and white, printed on the low-grade paper 2000AD used in the eighties and nineties. As well as Dredd, he worked on Tyranny Rex and Rogue Trooper.

ee_cummingsman
Picture courtesy of http://stevedillonart.tumblr.com

One piece of work that I didn’t remember until the other day – and the thing that prompted writing this – were his illustrations for Leigh & Leipine’s How to be a Superhero (out of print, but available used from Amazon). I bought it when I was about 14 and devoured it again and again. The writing was pitched perfectly at a teenager who knew how silly superheroes were and still loved them anyway. Steve’s art was what set it apart, though, and seeing the clarity of his one or two page strips and illustrations raised it above other things I’d seen that tried to spoof the capes and costume genre.

And, yeah, all the faces he drew looked the same. But you could say the same about Charles Schultz, so shut up.

Thanks, Steve. You were great.

 

Her Cat

I couldn’t sleep last night. Instead of tossing this way and that, keeping both me and my girlfriend awake, I got out of bed and went to the front room, thinking that I might lie on the sofa and fall asleep in front of the tv.

When I got there, I saw my girlfriend’s cat, sitting in front of an open book, purring and staring at the pages intently. Although the room was dark, I swear I could see his eyes scanning across the page, devouring every word with the same hunger he had for Felix Gourmet pouches. The sight should have been ridiculous, laughable even, but I could find nothing to laugh at.

I shifted uneasily and a floorboard creaked, causing the cat to turn his head sharply. I said nothing, did nothing, and barely breathed as the cat’s eyes locked on mine.

I almost said something. Then I realised there was nothing to say. The cat looked away and, with one paw, turned to the next page. I backed out of the room softly, heading back to the bedroom. I almost told my girlfriend what I had seen. But I didn’t.

And nor did I sleep.

The next morning, I got up and went to the front room. As I drank the first of many coffees, I looked at the spot where the cat had been sitting and read the now-closed book’s cover.

“Knots & Splices – A Beginner’s Guide.”

I think I’m going to have to break up with her.

A Letter to Tom Waits, circa 1999

Dear Tom,

I thought I’d just let you know that I’ll be moving out. I’m not sure where I’m going yet. Maybe I’ll head back to Mayor’s Income for a couple of weeks while I work out my next move. There’s some business to take of back in Indonesia, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to take care of that over the phone.

I have to say, though, that wherever I end up, I hope they’ll be more welcoming to newcomers. If my home improvement projects were such a problem, I really wish you’d done the neighbourly thing and come and talked to me about it. Hell, even a brief note like this one would have sufficed. Instead, you chose to spread all sorts of unfounded rumours and drip-fed a constant stream of suspicion in the neighborhood. I’m not saying that’s why I’m leaving, but it sure as heck didn’t make the decision to leave a hard one. I guess I hope whoever moves into the house after I’m gone is more ‘your kind of person’.

I trust that you’ll do the right thing and keep the local children away from the lawn. I was hoping to make a fresh start on the garden and used some pretty strong defoliants. (For the record that – and only that – is the reason I took down the tire swing from the pepper tree, as if worrying about infant safety were a crime or something.)

Tell the new neighbours that I’ll be in touch with a forwarding address for my magazine subscriptions.

Yours truly,
T.A.

PS – a four-poster bed, if it makes any difference.

Heroes

I watched the 2000AD documentary on the Channel 4 website the other day (Future Shock! The story of 2000AD, available for about another couple of weeks if you’re in the UK, available to buy or rent through iTunes etc after that or elsewhere). For the most part it’s a pleasant hagiography that’s mostly a string of creators telling us how they created things and how good it was in the olden days. And, to be honest, that made for quite comforting viewing. The thought process was “2000AD was good / I used to read 2000AD / I am good”  and that’s always a nice thought. The only real revelation I got from the film was a brief aside from Neil Gaiman who said that the overriding message of the comic was “don’t trust your heroes”, which rang very true and seemed like a particularly British thing to teach children and one of which I sort of approve (not wholeheartedly, of course, because I’m British and we don’t do that sort of thing).

A friend of mine that I lost touch with for a few years became a big cheese in Vice’s video section. When I asked how it was going he said it was great and that he was meeting a lot of his heroes. At the time I thought that was a little weird, but I put that down to the passing of the years and then distance that had grown between us. But Gaiman’s comment in the documentary and the celebrity deaths of 2016 have led me to wonder: who are my heroes?

And I realise that I don’t have a clue. I wrote in a previous post that I thought the  art was more significant than the artist (or, to borrow the motto of the mysterious club on the Stephen King novella The Breathing Method, “it is the tale, not he who tells it”). And in writing that I’ve realised that I automatically assumed that my heroes were, or should be, artists and creators. Perhaps that’s why I can’t find any. (My friend worked for Vice documentaries and met people like Václav Havel, although I remain slightly unconvinced he knew who Havel was before being briefed, but anyway…) Although some say that any act of creation requires bravery, I’m not sure that heroism is the same thing. Heroism is rescuing someone from drowning, or protecting others from tyranny and persecution or intervening when you see something intolerable that everyone else is ignoring. Writing a pop song or a comic book doesn’t seem like enough to match up to that, but nor can I think of any examples. Perhaps that comes from not growing up religious. Maybe if you learn from birth that there is an amazing person who did incredible things (Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha) then it’s perhaps easier to foster that kind of adoration towards others. The amazing figures that I grew up with were all explicitly fictional (Batman, Superman, Spock) and I knew on some level that they were pawns of the people who created them. Perhaps that’s the mistrust that Gaiman talked about and perhaps it’s a good thing. But while it’s perhaps sensible not to trust your heroes, is it really so sensible not to have any at all? Blind adoration inevitably leads to disappointment and disillusionment, but perhaps no adoration leads to a lower expectation of what is possible in life. Without someone to look up to, we don’t have a destination to head towards.

So, I’m just going say D.B Cooper, the midair robber who stole $200,000 and parachuted out of a plane. He didn’t change the world, but had chutzpah, didn’t hurt anyone and disappeared in mysterious circumstances. That sounds like a life worth living.

 

Your aspirations could be worse

Everybody dies

Everybody dies. It’s a simple truth, but one that human beings will go to great lengths to avoid. The news broke at work, through rumour and Twitter, that Prince was dead and immediately people started saying that it was such a shock, that they couldn’t believe it and remarking on how sad it was. I was pretty indifferent because, a) I’m not a big Prince fan and b) my mum died six weeks ago, so I’m not really that cut up about someone I don’t know. I’m not saying grief is a game of Top Trumps, but perhaps a little bit of perspective would be useful here. Whether it’s Prince, or Victoria Wood, or Gil Scott-Heron, or Lemmy or Ronnie Corbett or David Bowie, calling it a tragedy on Facebook is overstating it to an almost insulting degree.

I’m going guess that whatever the last Prince album you bought was, it almost certainly wasn’t recorded in the last twenty years. Ditto Lemmy. I don’t have a clue what Victoria Wood was up to for the past decade, but I’m guessing was pretty similar to what she had been doing for decades before that. Ronnie Corbett was, I suspect, telling jokes and playing golf most of the time, which made him happy so I can’t really complain. (I was, however, quite delighted with the Daily Mail’s mouth-frothing headline “WHY WASN’T HE KNIGHTED?” the day after the news of his death broke. Their manufactured outrage over the death of a well-liked entertainer being my almost-favourite inappropriate front page, second only to the September 12th 2001 edition of The Daily Sport, which read: LORRAINE KELLY NUDE RIDDLE.) Whatever these celebrities were like as people (and let’s assume they were nice, kind, loving and loved) they hadn’t actually produced anything vital in years.

David Bowie is supposed to be the exception to this slide into irrelevance and I’ve listened to both The New Day and Black Star probably one and a half times each. From what I gather, people like these albums because they’re like the ones Bowie recorded when they were young.

Adam Buxton released two hours of podcasts about how he dealt with the death of David Bowie. I listened to all of it and wasn’t really any the wiser afterwards. I can’t think of a single celebrity dying that shocked me, because I didn’t know them and although their work may have touched me, I never once thought I knew them or that they were part of my life. That seems to make me the exception from most, which isn’t to say I’m exceptional, only that while I understand the connection people have from the things they read, hear and watch, I don’t really understand why the people behind those things are so interesting. It’s the thing that’s interesting, not the person who made it. The thing! The thing!

(I’m using the word ‘thing’ way too much here, but I hope it’s forgiveable.)

It seems that what people are mourning isn’t the passing of a friend, or the loss of a talent. What they’re sad about is the fact that the people they took for granted, the figures who seemed so permanent as to be totems rather than human beings, are finite in their lifespan. And if they can go, then none of us are safe.

Honestly, I don’t need to be reminded of this fact. I have watched someone take their last breath and heard their heart stop beating. So excuse me if I don’t *hug* your status update or RT your platitudes, because this is just the way of things. People die so that there’s room for the new ones. The proper response to the passing of someone who’s work you loved isn’t to get all mardy about it, but instead ask yourself who is filling the gap they left in the world. Who is making the music that moves you? Who is making you laugh, or cry or change your thinking with just a few words, carefully chosen and put in the right context? Have a look around. If there isn’t someone creating those things, taking those chances that you think need to be taken, then perhaps you are the person you’re looking for. Maybe the responsibility is yours and you should grasp it, before you, too, fall into the void.

Time is short.

Everybody dies.

What are you doing in the meantime?

I’m New Here, Too – remembering Gil Scott-Heron’s last album

Like most people, I knew bits and pieces about Gil Scott Heron, simply because he was considered an important figure on the cultural landscape, particularly if you were interested in hip hop and black American culture. All I really knew, though, was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and a couple of tracks that my mate Al would put on mixtapes and I would secretly take the piss out of for their ‘shabba-dee-doo-da’ tendencies. (“The Bottle” and “Lady Day and John Coltrane” had their merits, but always leaned too far toward the second component of jazz-funk for my liking.) This changed when i watched a late night BBC4 documentary about him. At that point, I was using TV and films as a means of escape, trying to get away from the bad place that was my own head. That avoidance, perhaps, was what drew me to Gil Scott Heron. While I had become deeply disillusioned with the intersection of art and politics (largely due to a failed project that had cost everyone involved at least one pound of flesh), the idea of someone making it work was interesting. I expected to laugh at the mixture of poetry and polemic, but instead found that it wasn’t possible. You couldn’t dispute that this was someone making art with feeling that was about something. Those last two words were what I had been lacking. I watched a man, younger than myself, writing novels and recording albums and pouring his soul into art that sought to make meaning out of the wider world. And it made me feel ashamed, because all I wanted to do was make funny little things that would make people like me more. 

As the documentary went on, we saw him get older and more broken. The voice became ravaged by the the crack pipe and the mind fractured by its effects. The youth and vitality was lost to age, as perhaps it always is, but the drive and passion became misdirected to fulfilling the ongoing demands of drug dependency. Although the film presented the collaboration with XL Records head Richard Russell as something like Johnny Cash’s creative rebirth under Rick Rubin, it wasn’t to be. “I’m New Here” wasn’t the beginning of a great final chapter in an artistic career, but a bookend.

Isolation and failure aren’t issues limited to just me or Gil, the manner in which they were expressed made the album feel like it wasmine in that weird way fans have about the art that connects them to the creator in a remote, but strangely personal way.
“I’m New Here” starts with a tribute to “…the womenfolk who raised me and i was full grown… ’till I learned I came from a broken home.” On it, he speaks plainly about being sent to live with his grandmother and being surrounded by surrogate sisters. What I live about this track is the manner in which he undercuts the temptation to idolise his grandmother as some mythical creature with a reserve of mysterious spiritual strength. Instead, the endurance is pragmatic. You survive because you don’t have any choice. It made me think of my mother, who looked after two young children while battling cancer she wasn’t expected to survive. I often wonder if she beat the odds simply through force of will, love of her children proving more effective at destroying cancerous cells than radiotherapy and surgery. But then I realise I’m idolising a parent who perhaps just proved to be very, very lucky. 

The album goes on to present a ragged of broken beats and scattered ruminations from a man who had defined one generation and been forgotten by the next. Lost in the grips of addiction, Scott-Heron put together an album that was barely more than an EP by some artists standards, yet contained more truth and power in its short run time than many a bloated long player.

It was particularly resonant for me, as it touched on issues that had been preoccupying me for some time. I had managed to get through a nervous breakdown, the loss of my old life, career and friends and was in the anxious throes of early sobriety, wondering not only how I’d got to this point, but also what the rest of my life was supposed to look like now that everything I’d based it on had slipped away. It was all the same, but it was all different. I was staying in my mother’s flat, where I had lived as a child and now found myself back in, supposedly grown up but not feeling at all like a man. Lacking ability, but not ambition, I spawned plans to take over the world, despite the fact that I could barely tie my own shoelaces. That idea of being in a place you recognised, but it being utterly unfamiliar was strange and, at times, debilitating. I felt new here, too and even though I wasn’t in New York, I agreed that city living ain’t all its cracked up to be.

Musically, the album represents ameshing of Gil Scott-Heron’s jazz background with Richard Russell’s modern electronic production techniques. The tension is compelling and there’s a sense in which it feels as if the two men are digging through a crate of Gil’s old albums, looking for fragments to slice, warp and stretch into something new. Probably only 4 tracks could properly be called songs, but as a whole it becomes something larger than the sum of its parts. Although it’s his last album, it doesn’t wrap everything up in an easily digestible package. One gets the sense that this was as much as he could do at the time, there was still more to be done, whether it’s in the studio or the crackhouse. It’s the sound of someone still searching for something, even if he’s looking in the wrong places, and that desire to seek out truth – or something like it – is what makes not only this album, but Gil Scott-Heron’s body of work so vital.

I have no idea how well the album was received at the time. One year later, Jamie from The XX remixed the whole album, sanding off the edges and making it more of a proper album. This version tends to get more praise than the original and it’s sort of understandable why. Whereas the first version is a hodge-podge collection of oddities and out-takes, this actually a collection of songs, making the most of Scott-Heron’s often shambolic ruminations. Jamie XX takes the smallest element and spins it into an entire track. For that reason, if no other, it’s kind of a tour-de-force in the art of the remixbut it lacks that same creative tension that existed in the original. The XX version of the album is a six pack of beer, carefully and precisely packaged to make for a good time. The original, by comparison, is a broken bottle of spirits. While the former may be more conducive to a good time, the second tells a far more compelling story simply by virtue of its existence.

Recently, Spotify has been offering 30 minute ad-free listening windows if you watch one of their longer ads. Should you get one of these, I urge you to use 28 of them to take in “I’m New Here” in its entirety. 

 

Nice Dog

I have a simple one-pager in the Spring 2016 issue of Dirty Rotten Comics. This anthology contains a lot of talented creators and a diverse range of material. It’s the first comic since primary school that I’ve tried to create original artwork for and even though it’s pretty minimalist in style, I feel quietly encouraged that it was selected for publication.

Copies can be purchased from www.dirtyrottencomics.co.uk

George Tortoise

Buying the kids a pet without discussing it with his ex-wife wasn’t strictly kosher, but Mark knew it would earn him a lot of brownie points with Celine and Otto and if Jenny was angry… well, that was a not entirely terrible side effect that he could happily live with.

He bounded up to the ramshackle house that had once been his home, carrying a ventilated shoebox and certain that he would win this round of the divorce.

“Daddy!” came two shrieks, still both within the same octave as the door burst open and each of his legs was engulfed by a pair of arms.

“Hey monsters,” he said. “How’s it going?”

“I got a pogo stick!” Celine said.

“You did? Wow!”

“And I’m already better on it than she is,” Otto said, a little snidely.

“Sounds great!” Mark said. “I can’t wait to see you both have a go at it.”

He looked up and saw his ex wife watching them.

“How’s it been?” he asked and her roll of the eyes said it all.

“What have you got there, Daddy?” Celine asked.

“It’s a present for a very special girl who’s having a birthday today,” he said. “Do you know anyone like that?”

“Me! Me!”

“Alright then! Let’s go inside and see what’s in the box, shall we?”

Brother and sister both exclaimed enthusiastic affirmative noises and charged towards the front room, where most of the guests were sitting. It was not a room that felt warmly towards Mark, as it was made up mainly of Jenny’s family and friends. There were few other children there, except for shy cousin Neal and an enormously fat baby belonging to Jenny’s old boss. Although there were no kids and it wasn’t much fun, there were streamers and balloons and cake, so it was officially a party.

Ex in-laws nodded hello from a distance, but Mark wasn’t bothered about them. He knew where his constituency was and he pandered to them shamelessly as he placed the box on the centre of the table, sweeping away some plastic princess crap given as something to give, rather than with any real care or affection.

“Now then, let’s see what’s in the box shall we?” Mark said to his enraptured offspring. “Celine, why don’t you take the lid off and look inside.”

Curious, Celine did just that and the expression of surprise and delight was everything Mark had hoped it would be.

“Oh my god I love it! Thank you daddy thank you thank you thank you!”

“Oh, cool!” Otto exclaimed. “A tortoise!”

Various glances were shot across the room, between Jenny, her parents and other friends who without saying a word all agreed that this was typical Mark.

“Pick him up gently,” Mark said, carefully instructing his daughter who was spellbound by the wrinkled amphibian now in her charge.

“What’s his name?” Celine asked, holding the creature up above her head so that she could see it from all angles.

“I don’t know. What do you think his name is?”

Celine thought carefully about this.

“George,” she said finally.

Mark clapped his hands with delight. “George the Tortoise. Perfect.”

“No,” Celine insisted (quite firmly), “just George Tortoise. That’s his name.”

“OK. Well, I stand corrected,” Mark said, playing to the adult crowd now. He was hoping for an indulgent smile or two, but all he got were frosty stares.

“Let’s take him out into the garden,” Otto said and Celine agreed that this was a good idea.

At this moment, Jenny came over with a tight smile on her face.

“Could we have a word?” she said brightly to her ex. “In the kitchen. Now.”

“Sure thing,” Mark oozed. She looked like she wanted to shoot him. It couldn’t have gone any better.

As the adults took their conversation to the kitchen, the kids took their tortoise to the garden. It wasn’t much, just a few concrete slabs abutted by a square of crabgrass and a small vegetable patch to the rear. It was to this that the children made a beeline.

“Come on, George Tortoise,” Celine said. “Let’s get you a nice tasty lettuce for your lunch.”

“You won’t get to keep him,” Otto said.

Instinctively, Celine pulled George Tortoise closer to her body.

“Why not?”

“Mum’s cross with dad. She’ll take the tortoise-“

“George Tortoise.”

“She’ll take him away just to get at dad.”

“But George Tortoise is MY tortoise,” Celine insisted.

Otto shrugged. He was only eight – old enough to observe patterns in adult behaviour, but at a loss to explain them.

“What are we going to do?” Celine asked. “Otto! Think of something!”

In the kitchen, discussions were kept at a discreet volume, but their low amplitude did little to hide the venom contained therein.

“How could you do this?” Jenny hissed. “You know that buying them a pet is a decision we should have made together.”

“I thought she’d like it.” Mark said. “And to be fair, I was right.”

“That’s not the point and you know it. Taking care of a pet is a serious responsibility and you know what Celine’s like. One week she wants something and the next it’s on to something new.”

“That’s why I got it,” Mark said, fashioning an opportune lie, “to teach her that responsibility. It’ll be good for her.”

Jenny shook her head. “There’s nothing for it,” she said. “You’re going to have to take it back.”

“What are we going to do?” Celine wailed in the garden. “I don’t want him to go back to the pet shop. I love him so much…”

Otto remembered something he had once read in a book.

“‘If you love something,” he quoted, “‘let it go free.'”

Celine’s eyes widened, but she got the concept well enough and put George Tortoise on the ground.

“Go on,” she said. “Go back to the natures. Be happy, George Tortoise. Meet a lady tortoise and get married and have adventures together.”

Otto stood by her side and held her hand as they watched their new pet make his bid for freedom.

“He’s taking his time, isn’t he?”

“Come on, be reasonable,” Mark said. “It’s not like I brought her a puppy. It’s a tortoise for God’s sake. All he does is sit in a box and eat lettuce. You don’t have to worry about walks or cleaning up it’s mess. I mean, I don’t know if it even makes a mess…”

“Of course it does, you wally. Everything Poos. Remember the book?”

He did and that shared memory was enough to rekindle some small spark of what they’d had together.

“You need to move faster, George Tortoise!” Celine said, doing everything she could to encourage the ambling amphibian towards the end of the garden, short of picking him up and flinging him. Exasperated, she turned to her older brother. “What are we going to do?”

“Hang on,” Otto said, chewing his lip as he considered the situation, “I think I’ve got an idea.”

Explaining it would take too long, he decided. He had heard his parents hissing at each other and felt certain that they would be out soon with bad news. His little sister could be pain sometimes, but he didn’t want to see her upset, particularly not on her birthday. He told Celine to hold on and then rushed back into the house.

Without children present, the adults had opened a bottle of wine and greeted Otto more warmly than when it had just been tea on the menu. He brushed off grandpa’s invitation to do the hokey-cokey and quickly grabbed what he needed from the table.

“Look, it’s not so much the tortoise,” Jenny said. “Honestly, I quite like tortoises.”

Mark knew she did. His choice had been no accident.

“The thing is not talking to me about it. Just because we’re not together anymore, doesn’t mean we’re not on the same page where the kids are concerned.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Mark said. He could afford to be magnanimous, now that he had won. “I totally should have asked you about it. I just got caught up in the idea.”

Jenny allowed herself a little smile. In her mind’s eye she could see him in the pet shop, grinning to himself as he picked out George from the other tortoises. Not just George, she amended. George Tortoise.

Oh god. She’d used his name. It was game over, wasn’t it?

“Hurry up! Tie faster!” Celine whined. “I don’t want them to get him!”

‘They’ were her parents – her beloved mummy and funny daddy, both of whom she usually worshipped but who had, in extraordinary circumstances, become the enemy.

Poking his tongue out between his teeth, Otto did his best to maintain his concentration as he tied the strings around George Tortoise’s shell. It wasn’t easy and he nearly let the strings slip through his fingers more than once, which would have meant the end of everything. He was more focused than he had ever been in his short life. No video game, book or football match had ever held his attention like this and if he’d had the time or the insight, Otto might have realised that it was because nothing he had ever done had been for such high stakes.

“There,” he said. “I think that’ll do it.”

He let go of the animal, just to confirm what he thought was true, before holding it tight and taking it over to his little sister.

“You have to do it,” he said, peeking between the balloons tied to George Tortoise so he could look his sister in the eye. “He belongs to you. Only you can let him go.”

Celine nodded solemnly as she took George Tortoise and held him up above her head.

“I’m just tired of being the killjoy,” Jenny said. “I feel like I’m always the one who deals with nits and allergies and forms for school and you get to take them on bumper cars and buy them pizza. I don’t want to be the one who says no all the time, you know?”

And despite himself, Mark did. Thoughts of point scoring went out of the window as he remembered that they were both raising these kids and, perhaps, doing it well was within their mutual grasp.

“Fair enough,” he said. “Next weekend I’ll take them to a town planning meeting or something. You can take them to KFC when they get back.”

“Celine won’t eat KFC,” said Jenny and then, off Mark’s smile, added: “Will she?”

Mark shrugged. “One way to find out. Now, about the tortoise…”

“Yeah, of course she can keep it. I’m not a monster.”

“Great. Let’s go and see what they’re up to.”

“I’ll tell you now, though,” Jenny said as she pushed open the back door, “I’m not taking it for walkies. The neighbours already think in crazy as it is…”

Although Celine and Otto were both used to their parents laughing, it had been a while since they’d heard them do so together. They turned at this unusual (but welcome) sound.

“Ok then,” Jenny said, “where’s George Tortoise? I haven’t had a chance to say hello properly yet.”

The children looked at each other and then wordlessly pointed at the sky, where a shrinking dot was raising up into the clouds.

“If you love something,” Celine said. “You let it go.”

Her parents looked at each other, unsure what to say.

“I love George Tortoise,” she added, before heading back into the house for cake.

Picture by Elou Carroll.
Picture by Elou Carroll.

Codebreaker – The Decisive Machine

Interesting game. The only winning move is not to play.

Because, really, I’ll use any excuse to quote WarGames. In this case, it’s used at the beginning of the latest episode of the Codebreaker podcast, which talks about The Decisive Machine.

Each episode takes a technological concept and asks “Is it Evil?”. Past episodes have been about things like email and internet porn, but this one is perhaps the first that tackles something larger than what you might find on your smartphone or home PC.

Of most interest was the discussion about algorithms being used in parole board decisions. There was some friction between the inventor of the software used to determine whether people should stay in jail or go free and the host, who wanted to know how the issues of race, gender and economic background played in to the decision and, furthermore, whether they should.

The software engineer was cagey, using specious arguments about whether a judge or juror could ever really be unbiased and that was pretty much it for the debate. The use of pure logic, unfettered by moral and political ideas, seemed vaguely horrific to contemplate, but that is perhaps what makes it so interesting. Personally, I think it’s deeply unpleasant to think about that sort of decision taken out of human hands, but perhaps that’s what makes it valuable, not as a practical tool but in use for theoretical political modelling. Rather than try and adjust the computer so that it takes into account the social inequalities we seem to take as read, maybe we should be trying to shape our society to pass the pure test of the justice machine. If a disproportionate number of inmates are black males, what needs to be changed socially and politically in order for there to be balanced and just sentencing?

It’s the first episode of Codebreaker which has actually given me pause for thought. I’ll continue to listen.

The Black Project by Gareth Brookes

£12.99

Another brief recommendation for a book I’ve just finished. Gareth Brookes’ The Black Project is a graphic novel (horrible term, but probably apt for work that isn’t a comic but more visual than pure prose) that uses embroidery and linocut. It tells the story of one very young man’s attempts to get a girlfriend… by making one.

It’s not science fiction, if that’s what you’re thinking. Instead, it’s very grounded and I felt a connection with it in a most unexpected way.

Short story vending machine

I think I’ve seen something like this before, but can’t remember where. If I have, it doesn’t matter. The more things like this, the better.

Being able to select a story by reading time (1, 2, 3 minutes) is a neat idea. The stories are free, because I suppose they’d have to be, but nevertheless, I think this is great. Also, I have a bit of a thermal paper fetish, so this is right up my alley.

PSFK, via [Engadget][2].

[2]:

iBooks Author is disgustingly easy to use

It’s been sitting on my Mac for over a year now, waiting for me to get round to using it. The thing is, without a suitable device I’m not sure that any kind of book makes sense to create or consume. Now that I’ve got a tablet to stroke, however, I had a proper look at the software.

And, holy shit – it’s really easy to use.

Sometimes Apple leans too hard on templates and simplicity for my liking, but there are occasions when it’s the best approach. While I’m sure something like Sigil is good for getting into the guts of an ePub, making something a little more dynamic than regular old html needs a specialised tool.

It took less than an hour to convert Shift-Extra-Exit, including all the graphics and animations. Admittedly, I had all the assets in place, but being able to see it on a tablet was extremely satisfying and makes the process of creation more inspiring than just sending it off somewhere for conversion.

Add to that the ability to embed HTML and JavaScript (and, by extension, processing.js) and it offers real potential.

The downside, of course, is that it locks your creation into Apple’s publishing platform. There are options for exporting ePubs, but they obviously don’t have all the whizzy doo-dahs that the native format offers.

I’m attaching the result here, just in case anyone wants it.

SHIFT-EXTRA-EXIT iBook – 2.6MB

The Walking Dead

I’ve read… 48 (forty-eight?!) issues of this now, and I found the art style difficult to parse. Often, I found the setting changing without any real indication of the passing of time or the altering location (this is something the comics writer Gail Simone talked about on Twitter recently and I thought she was just being persnickety until I made my way through this omnibus of TWD). This may in part be due to the way this collection is put together, without any obvious breaks between issues of the original comics. Although splitting the story into ‘chapters’ I supposed to feel novelistic, the bald titles given are a bit annoying. I think one was actually called “The Calm Before The Storm”.

More of a problem was the fact that I couldn’t tell which character was which, unless they were played in the TV show by Egg or happened to be black (which, now I think about it, is sort of weird. This thing’s set in the US southern states and the appears to be only three black people survive? And by survive, I mean “survive”, because no one does for that long).

Being unable to identify the characters, let alone identify with them means that you start to see the patterns that the writer’s used throughout a long story arc.

  • Character introduced
  • Has sex / catches someone having sex
  • Dies

Occasionally, there’s a step between 2 and 3 where a limb is lost, but that’s pretty much it. Now I think of it, though, that’s human existence in a nutshell, which may or may not be Robert Kirkmann’s intent. Either way, I don’t think I’ll be going on to read another 48 issues.

Menopause

I didn’t submit this draft cover for a book about Menopause. The brief stated that they were looking for something striking that didn’t feature flowers or middle-aged women. This probably wasn’t what they wanted, but I was pretty pleased with it.

He Liked Thick Word Soup

I’ve never read James Joyce’s Ulysses and perhaps I never will, but I found this iPad app when I was considering buying the writing software that bears the same name (because, really, I don’t have enough different word processors – I’ve owned an iPad for less than a fortnight and already I have three installed, not including Evernote and the like).

I thought this was an interesting use of text and touch. Pulling out strings from a jumbled mass was a satisfying tactile experience. I think I’ve got a handle on how this might be done in Processing – at least up until the inverse kinematics, which I could probably look up. I’ve discovered, though, that applying principles you don’t really understand only leads to frustration. That wave text I posted a while ago? Can’t get it to move – at least in the way I want it to – because I don’t properly understand the mechanism.

He liked thick word soup on the App Store

Nicholas Nahornyl’s Lazy Pen – an interface for expressive typing

I’m always interested in physical interactions with words. The Lazy Pen is a software/hardware interface that is supposed to add another layer of expressivity to the act of typing text. Manipulating the paddles with your wrists alters the slant and pressure of the words on screen.

I like the hardware aspect of it, but personally wouldn’t have mimicked handwriting in the typography. While I can appreciate the creator’s vision of replicating the emotional and physical connection of writing by hand, I wonder if the handwriting actually seperates the writer from this process. That isn’t my handwriting on screen and the emphasis doesn’t come in the way that I would write. I’m more inclined to think that neutral type, modified in the same way, would afford more of the feel of handwriting, rather than getting caught up in aping the look.

I haven’t used it with my own two hands, though, and in systems like this that’s what really counts.

Project page

via creativeapplications.net

Unusual Concentrations by Simon Spurrier

By Simon Spurrier

Well, this could have been written with me in mind. A guy who fancies himself as a writer spends an unhealthy amount of time in coffee shops in the City of London, tapping away at a laptop. When a woman he was (thinking about) flirting with drops dead, he’s drawn into a conspiracy involving money, power and murder.

It’s fun. The meta narrative is a bit meurgh, but it’s only a couple of quid on Kindle, pushes along at a fair pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Unusual Concentrations