Microblogging

After being in “maintenance” mode for a couple of years, App.net is shutting down completely. I quite liked the service and their ambitious ideas for enabling more than just a 140-character stream. I had a paid subscription for a while, but ultimately it didn’t pan out. The network effects never took hold, and it ended up as too small a niche to be self-sustaining.

So I’m intrigued to see Manton Reece trying to do something new in this same space. He is running a kickstarter for an “indie microblogging” service (micro.blog), and a book to go along with it. From what I can tell, it’s a re-thinking of classic blogging tools and RSS for the modern era. RSS readers were great, but nowadays people expect the simplicity of clean-looking apps and a simpler, more socially-oriented timeline. This looks like it might provide a solution along those lines, while still being rooted in the open web, and holding on to its distributed nature.

Homestly, I’ll be surprised if the service turns into a long-term sustainable venture. The niche of people who care if their social network is a walled garden or built on open standards is tiny, and shrinking. But I’m still going to back it, because I’m one of them.

Mixed media, Thursday 5 January 2017

At the start of this Christmas & New Year break, I had good intentions to get out of the house and take a walk every day. My work patterns have been making me feel increasingly shut in and locked behind my computer, and I wanted to take the time to start bedding in a new habit. It didn’t quite work out. Last Friday I got out of bed with a ferocious stabbing pain in my lower back, and I’ve been in constant pain since then. The thud-thud vibration of walking hurts. Standing still aches. Sitting down hurts. Standing up after having sat for a while hurts even more. (I’ve been to the doctor now. I have :emoji heart with manga eyes: painkillers.)

Swimming feels good. On Saturday (Hogmanay) morning, our central heating and hot water boiler died. We have a call-out contract with a repair and maintenance company. They came out on Saturday afternoon to say, “yup, it’s dead,” but they couldn’t do anything about it until Monday at the earliest. Not really what we needed at New Year, when I wanted to be spending a lot of time soaking in a hot bath or shower, but there’s never a good time for the hot water to do away. Hence the swimming. We finally got the boiler replaced yesterday. Fortunately, this winter hasn’t been really cold yet, and we have a wood-burning stove downstairs that puts out a lot of heat. Also, the teenagers rarely take showers even at the best of times.

In a way, though, this back pain has been a good thing. I have spent a lot less time behind my computer than I probably would have otherwise this holiday. Sitting at my desk is a pattern, a habit that finds a way to feed itself. Whether it’s cranking out a stack of posts on this blog, scanning old documents, or reorganizing my digital photos archives, recently I have always found something to obsess about in my breaks.

What these activities have in common is that they appear productive, but are not necessary. During the normal working week, my evenings and weekends feel so squeezed that the only time I have to tackle time-consuming projects that require continuous stretches of attention is during my part-time leave. This is a problem, because I impose time pressure on myself, and don’t take the time to relax. When I go back to work, I don’t feel rested, and I’m unsatisfied by the time off. It’s not a good pattern.

So finding myself physically unable to sit up straight for any length of time has led to me spending more time lying around (lying on my left side is pain-free for my lower back, but it is starting to give me neck pain instead), reading, continuing to re-watch Fringe, and playing more console games again. As always when I rediscover the joy of gaming, I realize that I should do more of it.

Carl Richards in the New York Times suggests that 2017 should be the “Year of Working Hard and Resting Hard”:

We can add “exhausted” to words like “cynical” and “busy” that we wear as badges of honor. As crazy as it all sounds, I have to admit to having believed it. A part of me in some dark corner of my mind whispers: “This is all true, Carl. If you don’t keep hustling, you’ll end up falling behind, and no one will listen to you. Ever. Again. Then, you’ll just be another failure, left to crawl under a rock, cold and alone to die!”

But since I’ve appointed myself King of Permission Granting, I hereby grant everyone the permission to declare the #CrushIt decade finished. January 2017 will be the official start of the “Work Hard, Rest Hard” decade. We are going to hustle, sure. But we’re also going to rest. In fact, we’re going to be as good at resting as we are at crushing things.

What I don’t want to do is go off and relentlessly pursue relaxation by taking up a new hobby, or resolving to go to the gym three times a week now that I have crossed the 80kg bridge heading in the wrong direction. I’m not going to seek out every concert that sounds interesting, just because it’s nearby. Picking up a game controller regularly is enough, precisely because there is no purpose to it other than that it’s a moment of fun, just for me.

In his annual “State of the World” address, this year Bruce Sterling writes, “I would start by strongly urging you prize your existence in 2017. Life is precious and shouid be valued, for it’s easy not to have it.”

This echoes the emotions I felt after watching Arrival, and it ties in with all of the above. (I have to find better ways of disconnecting from work outside of office hours.) Arrival is wonderful.

I saw Arrival on my own in the morning, and then later in the day all four of us went out to see Rogue One. It was okay, but I didn’t find any of the character arcs convincing. It was odd seeing Forest Whitaker in two so very different roles on the same day. CGI Peter Cushing looked like a very well-rendered videogame character, but out of place nonetheless.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was fine, so long as you ignore the fact that Newt Scamander is the world’s worst wizard. Moana is called Vaiana here, for reasons. I thought it was fine; Fiona loved it and thinks it’s her favourite Disney movie now. Star Trek: Beyond was fine, but forgettable. It would be nice if they could find a plot that doesn’t involve a bad guy bent on destroying the Federation some day.

Comics: I’m in the middle of a bunch of them, but the ones I’ve finished most recently are Squirrel Girl vol 4: I Kissed A Squirrel And I Liked It, and Howard The Duck vol 2: Good Night And Good Duck. Squirrel Girl continues to be great. Good Night And Good Duck ends Chip Zdarsky’s and Joe Quinones’s run on Howard the Duck, and it is awful. I don’t say that lightly. Earlier this year, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky injected themselves into Sex Criminals issue 14 as an interlude. Here, Chip Zdarsky spends two whole issues on a bullshit storyline involving a couple of purple entities (“Chipp” and “Jho”) from the planet Sparkitron, who have been writing scripts for the Howard The Duck reality TV show to make it more interesting for viewers of the Mojoverse network. Turns out everything that has been happening to Howard over the last 11 issues has been their doing! It’s juvenile, unfunny, and a colossally disappointing end to what started off as a smart and innovative run.

Circling back around to the playing of video games, I finished Uncharted 4 last week, and I loved it. (So did Film Crit Hulk.) The mix of story, exploration, on-rails sections, and gunplay was just perfect for me. And although the climbing sections were obviously unrealistic, they had just the right thrilling feel for a climbing simulation. Which is not something I can say for The Last Guardian. I haven’t got very far into it, but coming straight from Uncharted 4, the climbing is much less intuitive and fluid. (The “X” button means “jump up” in Uncharted, but “drop” in The Last Guardian. This takes some getting used to.)

Also playing: Amplitude and Doom. Both of them are easy to pick up and play quicky. I’m sure they would reward long stretches of continuous attention, but they don’t demand it. That’s nice. I need more of that. Moments of fun, just for me.

2016 Concerts

My rule of live music used to be “Never miss an opportunity to see your favourite band, because you never know when they will split up, or die.” But despite 2016 being quite brutal in terms of big name musicians signing off, I’m going to be more discerning from now. 2016 was peak gig for me. Seeing 19 concerts at 12 different venues in such a short span of time (yeah, a year is short) has taught me a lot about what I like and what I don’t like in a concert.

And that’s okay. Going out to see live music should just be fun.

  1. 5 February 2016: Imagine Dragons at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  2. 11 February 2016: Wolf Alice at Paradiso, Amsterdam
  3. 26 February 2016: Halsey at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  4. 2 May 2016: Melanie Martinez at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  5. 9 May 2016: The Joy Formidable at The Liquid Room, Edinburgh
  6. 20 May 2016: Bleached at Bitterzoet, Amsterdam
  7. 21 May 2016: The Heavy at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  8. 30 May 2016: Garbage at Paradiso, Amsterdam
  9. 20 July 2016: Area 11 at The Mash House, Edinburgh
  10. 9 August 2016: Indigo Girls at Mountain Winery, Saratoga
  11. 12 August 2016: Lindsey Stirling at Mountain Winery, Saratoga
  12. 11 October 2016: Marianas Trench at Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam Cancelled (postponed?)
  13. 26 October 2016: Passenger at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  14. 7 November 2016: The Lumineers at Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam
  15. 11 November 2016: 65daysofstatic at Poppodium Q-Factory, Amsterdam
  16. 16 November 2016: Bastille at Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
  17. 28 November 2016: Frightened Rabbit at Tolhuistuin, Amsterdam
  18. 3 December 2016: Deacon Blue at AECC, Aberdeen
  19. 15 December 2016: The Cool Quest at Melkweg, Amsterdam
  20. 18 December 2016: Talib Kweli at Bitterzoet, Amsterdam

My favourites: Area 11, The Cool Quest, 65daysofstatic. Would go and see them again any time.

Wolf Alice, The Heavy, Garbage, Frightened Rabbit, The Joy Formidable: would go and see them again if the venue was right.

Venues: Paradiso is still the best. Ziggo Dome: avoid when possible. AECC in Aberdeen: not even once.

Mixed Messages, Wednesday 28 December 2016

As a late Christmas present to myself, I’m cleaning out some browser tabs.

There are times when I need more counselling, and times when I need less. So of course I feel guilty about the times when I’m feeling well and don’t need to schedule sessions. In “Ghosting on Freud: why breaking up with a therapist is so tricky” Alana Massey talks about how ending a counselling arrangement can be hard. Fortunately, my counsellor is aware of things like the internet, and I don’t have to worry about him asking me something like, “don’t you have any real friends to talk to?”

In October, jwz “[drew] a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Communist Conspiracy.” It’s a great sprawling tale. Although I’ve never been to the DNA Lounge, I have followed jwz’s blog for a long time, I was sad to hear that it’s going through hard times.

I finished watching Person of Interest over the summer, and I enjoyed reading Ed Zitron’s retrospective Person Of Interest Was Anti-Prestige TV And Too Smart For Primetime”. AI and surveillance technology has been on my mind a lot all of this year. All the way over on one end of the spectrum lies Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence, which literally kept me awake at nights; while on the other side lie technologies like Google Photos, which I have finally grown sufficiently (though not overwhelmingly) comfortable with to trust with limited tasks. I’m not ready to have a permament surveillance device like the Amazon Echo in the house, always on and always listening.

(At the same time, I’m not ready to tape over the camera on my laptop, or to stuff putty in its microphone. And over the years I’ve got used to carrying a GPS tracking device with me wherever I go.)

It’s really hard to talk about these things without sounding completely paranoid, but ubiquitous surveillance + facial recognition + big data processing (even without strong AI) + cheap drones gives the states we live in unprecedented power to identify and target political dissent under the guise of preventing terrorism and extremism. For me, in 2016, the convenience of automatically geo-tagging my photos is worth the tiny risk of being pinpointed and taken out by a smart bomb. I worry that will not always be the case. One of the most unsettling things I listened to this year was the Radiolab episode “Eye In The Sky”, which describes how drone surveillance opens up whole new avenues of crime detection. This technology is only going to get more accurate, and more automated.

(I’ve moved the server that hosts sunpig.com out of the UK, and am trying to figure out what VPN service to sign up for, but I haven’t gone as far as digging tunnels yet.)

If you have watched the film Under The Skin, take some time to read Film Crit Hulk’s deep dive on its many layers of meaning.

Once upon a time (January 2015), WayTools demoed an innovative mobile keyboard, with a tiny form factor. They took tons of pre-orders, promising delivery in early 2015. Since then, they’ve been fairly consistent about slipping their shipping estimates by one month per month, with a stream of plausible-sounding updates about improvements to firmware and software, unexpected manufacturing defects, how awesome their QA robots are, and how their Test Release Group of specially selected real-world users just love their prototype devices. Their latest update says that they’re unlikely to ship even in Q1 of 2017, and I’m pretty sure they’re just trolling us now.

I saw pictures of the Changsha’s Lucky Knot Bridge on the 99% Invisible Tumblr and on Kottke. It’s designed by Dutch firm Next Architects, who also designed the Melkwegbrug in Purmerend, which I had not known about before. Purmerend is only 10km away. During this Christmas break I’m trying to get out for a walk every day, so I’m going to head there and take some pictures.

Andy Baio “redesigned his blog,” and talks about the cultural significance of doing that, rather than just the visual design aspects. I’m with him.

At the end of October I met up with Edward Hasbrouck when he was passing through Amsterdam. Rather than wandering around the city centre, we took the ferry cross the IJ, had lunch at Café Noorderlicht, and then spent a couple of hours cycling around the northernmost outskirts, where the urban melts into the rural. Edward visited Turkey on that trip as well. I’m still not sure what to make of the political situation in Turkey right now.

The Last Man, a short film by Gavin Rothery, who also worked on the film Moon:

The film’s music is by Charlotte Hatherley, who will have a new record out soon? New song “A Sign” out now.

Talib Kweli at Bitterzoet, Sunday 18 December 2016

I have mixed feelings about this gig, for many reasons. Gig fatigue plays a part. That weekend had felt long already, with a stressful week at work just behind me, Christmas shopping, and doing a load of extra maths work with Alex. I wasn’t really looking forward to the gig, because it felt like another immovable deadline. I relaxed when I got there, though. My first visit to Bitterzoet was to see Bleached in May, and it’s a snug, atmospheric little venue rather than a giant barn.

Although I listen to a fair bit of rap and hip-hop, I don’t go to many hip-hop gigs. In fact, I’ve hardly been to any. I’ll count Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip in 2010, but they came at rap from a distinctly British/electronic mash-up tradition. The only other one was De La Soul last year, and I came away from it somewhat disappointed. So I don’t have a terrific baseline for judging Talib Kweli’s performance last week.

Getting up on stage with just a microphone and a DJ behind you is different than playing with a band. Watching a rapper perform is a different experience than watching a group of musicians all play their own instruments. There are some aspects of Sunday’s gig that were familiar from seeing De La Soul: the shout outs to other artists, the call and response, the “put your hands in the air, let me see those hands”. The relationship between the artist and the audience is different. It felt to me like Talib was constantly probing the audience for a sense of community…and not quite finding it.

About half-way through the show, he paused briefly to deal with an over-enthusiastic woman at the front of the crowd. From further back I hadn’t noticed anything, but she was clearly bothering him. He asked for her name, and said something along the lines of “You know what? When people pay money to see your show, you can have the mic. Until then, I’m up on stage, not you.” It was an annoyed put-down, and he got a bit of support from the rest of the audience.

Ten minutes later he took a break between songs to talk about the nature of hip-hop, and how if you love the beats and the rhymes, but don’t care about the message, you don’t really love hip-hop, you have a hip-hop fetish. As he spoke about Black Lives Matter, the same woman at the front of the crowd called out “what about indiginous people?” He just about exploded. He accused her of using her white privilege to interrupt his show, and that he’d had enough. He called for security to take her and her boyfriend away, and then stalked off stage saying that he wouldn’t come back until they were gone.

The overwhelmingly 30-40 year-old white audience didn’t know how to deal with this. There was a lot of uncomfortable murmuring. They (we) weren’t cheering him on, but nor were we coming to the woman’s defense. We shuffled our feet until security removed her and her boyfriend, and applauded uneasily when Talib came back on and resumed the show. If he hadn’t fully connected with the audience before then, the mood was subdued after that. Even the Bob Marley sing-along, and the point where he encouraged everyone with a joint to light up didn’t bring back a whole-hearted sense of cheer.

Or maybe that was just all in my head? I’m getting over the idea that I’m doing concerts wrong when I just stand around watching and listening attentively rather than jumping and dancing. I’ve been to enough indie and rock shows that I’ve convinced myself that’s perfectly fine. Maybe hip-hop shows are different? The interaction with the crowd seems to be more important. I was back to feeling like I was letting the event down when I got tired of putting my hands up.

Which leads me to questions like: to what extent does the artist get to dictate how the audience enjoys their music? When Talib called out the woman at the front of the crowd, he emphasized that the audience had paid to see him, not her. Okay, but she had paid her money, too. Obviously, the price of entry doesn’t give you the right to do just anything. Each tradition of performance has a matching set of social norms for the audience. Standing on your seat and singing along at the top of your voice might get you ejected from an opera. At what point do these norms get enforced by the audience through social pressure, and when is it acceptable for the artist to express their disapproval about my reaction to their work?

(Aside: I sometimes get a thrill when I see artists trying to prevent politians from using their music at events in support of politics that the artists themselves vehemently oppose. Is this the same thing? Musicians are certainly well within their rights not to perform at such an event, just as it would be unreasonable to prevent people with opposing views from buying and playing their music privately. When it comes to public performances of recorded music we get into that whole grey area of copyright, intellectual property, and public interest.)

Abi points out that this can be seen as another example of the Author’s Big Mistake, which is to respond (angrily, defensively, or any other way) to a negative review. It just doesn’t end well.

Anyway, after weighing up all of that emotional baggage, I don’t think it was a particularly good show. Talib Kweli is a great rapper and lyricist, and there were moments when he laid down the best of his flow. Most of the time it was a cut-up affair, where he extracted the best bits from her repertoire, and cut them off part-way through so he could move on to the next one. His best recordings are his collaborations, where he gets to spark off other singers and rappers, and his light and fast voice cuts through them like a switchblade. Solo, even with DJ Spintelect at his back, he could only rebound from the audience, and when the audience let him down, he didn’t shine.

Stuffing recipe

Abi points out that this is technically “dressing” rather than “stuffing” because I make it as a side dish rather than use it to actually fill the Thanksgiving or Christmas bird. In fact, it’s probably hearty enough to act as a meal in its own right. Because I usually only make this twice a year, I tend to forget how I did it from year to year. So here’s the written version.

Ingredients:

  • 8 slices of white bread
  • 250g fatty bacon bits
  • 250g chopped carrots (about two carrots)
  • 125g chopped celery (about three stalks)
  • 350g chopped apples (about three apples, peeled and cored)
  • some sage, thyme, and mild paprika powder
  • two generous tablespoons of cranberry compote (or jam, or sauce)
  • 400ml (approx) chicken fond or other rich stock

The slices of bread have to be dried out. I spread them on a rack and put them in a warm oven (100°C) for about 40 minutes, turning them over half way through.

Bready to go in the oven

While the bread is drying in the oven, get busy with the rest of the ingredients. Start by frying the bacon bits in a large thick-bottomed pan until they are brown and crispy and have given up most of their fat. Start on a high heat, and once it’s up to temperature, take it low and slow.

Mmm, bacon.

While the bacon is frying, chop the carrots, celery, and apples. The carrot should be chopped reasonably thinly. (Paper thin and they’ll burn too easily, diced and they’ll take too long to soften all the way through.) The apple chunks can be a bit bigger.

Carrots and celery are good for you
Apples, too

Once the bacon is ready (see above), remove the bacon bits from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind in the pan. Keep the bacon bits aside for later. Don’t eat them all in the meantime. Put the carrots and celery into the pan, and stir them around to give them a nice coating of bacon fat. Cook them on a medium heat until they take on a nice bit of colour. If they look like they’re too dry and in danger of burning, add a little olive oil.

Carrots and celery with a bit of colour

Add the chopped apples to the pan, put the lid on the pan, and let the mix steam for a bit while the apples give up their moisture. Take the lid off and give the mixture an occasional stir until the apples have softened and collapsed a bit, but not turned to mush.

Healthy food: a pan full of vegetables and fruit.

By this point, the bread in the oven should be dry. Take the slices out of the oven, put them in a bowl, and use a potato masher to turn them into a mixture of mostly fine breadcrumbs, with some larger bits left intact.

Breadcrumbs

Return the bacon bits to the pan. Add the cranberry compote and the herbs, stir them together, and check for taste. (A little dried sage goes a long way. Don’t over-do it.) Add the breadcrumbs and the fond, and mix. It will end up as a rough but gooey mass. Spread it out evenly in an oven-proof dish.

Before oven

Cook in the oven at about 200°C for 20-30 minutes, until it gets slightly crispy and nicely browned on top.

After oven

Time from putting the slices of bread in the oven to taking the finished product out of the oven at the end: about 1h 45m. Which is why I made it today, rather than leaving it to tomorrow. Abi likes this stuffing on its own, but personally I prefer it with a bit of gravy. It keeps in the fridge for a couple of days, or less if there are more people around the house.