Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mandatory EU referendum post

For anyone thinking of voting tomorrow, it's really important to cut through the rhetoric of whatever filters through the media hyperbole, and realise exactly what impact the vote might have on the country.

This FT article is a great look at some of the main arguments and evidence (yes, actual data) being put forward.

For further reading, is a great resource for digging into issues more as well.

Obviously everyone needs to make their own mind up, but more information is always better. (Personally, I've concluded that leaving the EU would be national suicide.) Feel free to share the links above with anyone you agree or disagree with, or who would just like to find out more.

The 6000-year rise of cities

I think this visualisation of the emergence of cities over time is possibly one of the most beautiful things I've seen in a while:

In particular, it really shows off the longitudinal line of early development north of the equator, and the part where everything explodes around 1900 is like a firework display.

Via - click for background and more info about data used.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Announcing: Postcards from Cloud Land

Rapid chain of thoughts. Semantic settling. Code hack. Command lines all round. Androids in the palm of the hand.

New project, new feed: Postcards from Cloud Land. Irregular images, chunks of text mauled from the world around me. Post-postal electronic postcards, following a delivery-only model that rallies against the open archive, the static webpage. Subscribe-heavy, opt-in via email or RSS only. More info at the link.

Sibling feed of the pebbles newsletter. Will convert this to the same model. No homepage, only delivery. No traces except the arrival. Stop leaving things lying around.

Is it a good idea? It's an idea. Subscribe or be damned. Let me know?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Believe nothing?

Crazy video showing CGI these days.

If we can't trust what we see any more in our media streams, then what do we do?

Option 1 is to turn sceptical detective. Always check provenance, sources, authenticity. What's the link between "reality" and what you're seeing now? Can you digitally sign an authentic capture? Verify against multiple sources. Validate those sources. Run cluster analysis on them for network heterogeneity checks.

It's a lot of work.

Option 2 is to believe nothing. Accept that authentic data capture was a fad, permitted only by a lack of technical progress, and that golden era of "default to real" is gone. "Default to fiction" - everything. News outlets join the ranks of sci-fi writers and surrealist artists. Citizen journalism as collective hallucination.

I'm tempted by this option. Our info feeds are tainted to the point of entropy. What does it mean though? Is it a form of reclusiveness, or of rebirth?

Monday, May 30, 2016

On haiku: When 5-7-5 probably isn't, and how I count my own tongue

I think I may have written about haiku and syllables before, but it’s always worth returning to. Why? Because language and rhythm are what make us. Because every movement your tongue makes tells us something of who you are. The skill of silkenness is not to be overlooked. Rhythm can hypnotise your listener. Or shock them.

Every time I write a haiku, I end up doing some kind of rhythm/syllable check. Note I end up doing it, not start with it. The wrong way of writing a haiku is to start with a structure of "5-7-5 syllables” and try to fill it in like a crossword puzzle. Only the ugly can come about, forced into mouthboxes like eggs being sorted. No, the words must flow, and they must do so in order to carry ideas on them, like tiny paper boats.

Based on this, there is nothing to say that a ‘heavy’ 5-7-5 "Western syllable” style is wrong (or right). It’s just that it’s easier to get something that is wrong in many ways once you take this as your starting point. English is a crazy language: brutal like a mattock in some places, whispering like ice in others, and convoluted to the point of lengthiness elsewhere. It is the city of languages, hybrid and evolved, an amalgamation and a series of opportunities.

Japanese, on the other hand, knows it is Japanese. The basic vowel or consonant-vowel pattern means only the Japanese could have come up with such a regulated structure across its culture so easily. Here’s a classic Basho poem, in the original Japanese for example:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The monophthongic nature tugs at a simplicity Westerners can only dream of. Perhaps our dreams are tangled and confused because our tongue is. How can we attain something close to zen if we can’t even use our language to begin to describe it?

Anyway, to return to the path. For me, one of the best ways to learn to write haiku is to read the Japanese original (for me - transcribed, but not translated, as above), and contemplate the flow of mora. By understanding and practising the original rhythm of haiku, I think it gets a lot easier to let ideas flow into words which are nearer the end goal, than to labouriously count out words until you have the right number.

These mora are closer to heartbeats than Western syllables. Take this section from wikipedia, for instance, which describes place names:

"the Japanese name for "Japan", 日本, has two different pronunciations, one with three morae (Nihon) and one with four (Nippon). In the hiragana spelling, the three morae of Ni-ho-n are represented by three characters (にほん), and the four morae of Ni-p-po-n need four characters to be written out as にっぽん.

"Similarly, the names Tōkyō (to-u-kyo-u とうきょう), Ōsaka (o-o-sa-ka おおさか), and Nagasaki (na-ga-sa-ki ながさき) all have four morae, even though, on this analysis, they can be said to have two, three and four syllables, respectively."

Bearing that in mind, my own haiku can often end up fairly short. In English, 5 mora doesn’t give you much space to play. On the flip side, the constraint does force a more truncated snapshot, a clearer sense of the haiku moment and the idea of “a single breath”. Sometimes you can say too much in 17 syllables.

Here’s an example of something that ran through my head the other morning, using Western syllables:

the early shadows 
releasing the little mouse
one step at a time 

With space to add syllables, I often find myself using longer words, adding in adjectives like “little”, or more “filler” like the word “the”. 

In contrast, here’s a version cut down to a mora-style count:

early shadows 
releasing a mouse 
step by step 

This to me feels lighter, and more elusive as a result. it plays on the winds, and flits around like a butterfly more. There is an airy space that invites the viewer to reflect instead of read. Hopefully that gets closer to the heart of what haiku set out to do - put us back in touch with both ourselves and the world around us.

(Sometimes I do fall back to a Western style syllable count, if I think it’s still an interesting output.)

For reference, my own mora-style count tries to follow something fairly Japanese, and basically takes any jump from one “heavy” consonant to another as a new mora, including consonants at the end of a word. So “barren” would be 3 mora but “barrow” I would probably count as 2 and “bear” as 1. Sometimes that means one word can “bleed" into another, eg. “a part of” would be counted as “a-par-to-f”. If I’m not sure, I’ll refer back to the question of whether it flows as I want it to or not - or use another word.

Hopefully this explains a bit why my haiku are not always what most people consider “5-7-5”. This is actually the least interesting aspect of haiku, and I hope to never write about it ever again. For more interesting stuff, have a look on the web. Here’s a good starter.