Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mini Story: A Million Miles

(Drafted before Christmas.)

Mask up, lost in thought in the queue, I overhear a fragment of a conversation. Two letters dart out like fingers: A, and E. But it's nearly Christmas, I think. All the people here in the supermarket are busy picking up chocolates, decorations, drinks and the daily newspaper. The annual selection of festive chart toppers is seeping out over the aisles in an attempt of normality. ("Last Christmas"?) A vaccine is on the way. How can anyone be in A&E? Didn't the world just stop this year? It must be the virus, surely.

Mask up, I load my basket onto the conveyor belt. It reminds me of a crematorium, except the items slide conveniently behind the clear plastic screen in front of the cashier. Transparent, cut off, the screen feels like a window, as if I'm being gently reassured that there's no embezzlement going on. I switch to thinking of an airport security scanner, uniformed guards peering into people's lives through oversized x-ray scans. Is it me rifling through the cashier's day as I pass by, or is she assessing me and my intent?

"How are you today?" I ask, muffled by mask cloth and nine months of conscious distancing. (Lockdown babies must be being born soon, "a decree went out that everyone must return to their birthplace".) She passes a loaf of bread to me. "Not too bad, thanks. How are you?" That polite, programmed response that comes out of all of us instinctively, a script that weaves us together and stops us going insane on an hourly basis. It jars awkwardly wih the conversation I just heard. The bread is too big for this bag, so I start filling a new one.

I can't help myself though. Maybe it's curiosity, fear of awkward silences, or an awareness of Christmas spirit. "Did you say you had someone in A&E?" I ask, trying to sound clear from under this mask. Without lips, my eyes and the inflections have to do the real talking, a tilt of the head carrying some hint of concern against the flow of incoming vegetables. From where I'm standing, I can talk to her without the screen in the way now. The lady in the queue behind me has started loading her shopping on to the belt - bottles of water and a glossy magazine. The thin aisle of the checkout lane acts as both a wall and a checkpoint between me and her.

Not Covid. Crohn's disease. I've heard of it but I'm a passer-by, a shopper, not a doctor. It's her son, in his twenties, taken in last night. Tests. Always tests. She hopes to hear something about the tests when she gets her lunch break. I mentally check my watch - lunch must feel like a million miles away right now. Meanwhile, more bread and chocolates and Christmas jumpers rolling past, more lives and small talk. Wham and Jesus.

The conveyor belt pauses sometimes, the never-ending line of processed goods being held up momentarily by an invisible thread being broken by something huge and global getting in the way. The lady in the queue behind carries on piling up her things into a neat stack while the belt remains motionless. As I watch, the stack turns into a tower - meat and yoghurt and tinned fruit form columns and terraces, dwarfing the line of waiting customers, all growing smaller as the heap gets higher. It looks stable even though I have to crane my neck to see the top. How does she pile it like that without it wobbling? I want to send a message down the space in the aisle, despatch a rodent with a letter asking her to wait. Even though the cashier is passing me more loaves of bread, the conveyor belt is still static and pensive.

I'm not a doctor, I can't fill the silence left by lab checks and sterilised floors. Hiding behind my mask again, I grab the bread and fill up another shopping bag. Seeded baps. White cobs. Baguettes until break. Loaves until lunch time. Bread. Always bread.



Blurry monochrome photo of a  silhouetted figure against the sea

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Amazing sunset today

Use Signal

Great to see Signal getting a bunch of recommendation in light of WhatsApp's latest unprivacy move. I should note that I've been on Signal for a few years, and will happily take contact requests from people I'm in touch with regularly. (Currently Signal needs a phone number, hence the level of trust required here, but they're working on user IDs, according to this Reddit AMA.) Just drop me an email, a DM via Twitter, or via XMPP.

Mini Photo Essay: Winter Garden

Making extra effort to get out into the fresh January frost this week. This morning, all the birds are crying out in the haze, like they're reasserting their collective territory in the absence of traffic and planes. Seagulls, blackbirds, chickens, sparrows, all casting an aerial net over us. 

 I think of church bells trying to join in, either in impersonation or in some attempt to dominate the clouds.

The frosted dew is melting faster than yesterday, sending percussion notes falling from the sloped roof of the shed.

Pyracantha berries, guarded by spikes, waiting to be eaten by wood pigeons and blackbirds.

Remnants of frost on the branch cuttings from the tree that was cut down over the road.

Dustings lurking on the uneaten sunflower seeds. A fox has visited the other night. Perhaps the seeds are too low down.

The leftovers of last summer's tomato plants, nearly forgotten about.

The stems of the purple broccolli, a gift from a stranger, don't seem to bear their own weight any more.

When will the broccolli sprout?

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Service Status 2021-01-03

Apologies if you saw a bunch of old posts appearing in the RSS feed -
the feed stopped working the other day and while the actual problem was
that I'd pasted in a screenshot from Firefox*, I monkeyed about and
think I switched a redirect unnecessarily.

I've switched it back now, which either means things will be as they
were before, or all my posts will get re-published AGAIN.

2021, huh? Can't live with it, can't get basic open standards right
without it.

* Don't paste images as raw data, kids. I hope they teach that in
schools these days.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Five Worlds from 2020

This was originally going to be "5 Books of 2020" as a way to segue neatly from recent review posts, but I wanted to go a bit deeper. 2020 has been a time of escapism, of strange remote places, of everything-being-real-as-if-through-a-mirror. Normality gave way to surrealism in our own homes, and in our heads, and I still feel like waking up is a dream and going to sleep is natural.

As it was, I somehow found time to delve into some new 'worlds' more deeply than I might usually. (Or maybe I'm just getting older now. Answers on a postcard.) 'Worlds' is a difficult one to define - some worlds are more richly and consciously constructed than others (son 1, for instance, is in the middle of the Harry Potter series, and it feels like Rowling is often setting out her universe as a long term plan). Others are intended as throwaway playgrounds, but the intrepid explorer can still find a hundred edges and paths if they know where to look.

So here have been some of my favourite worlds I've been exploring over the last year.

  1. The world of seafaring and whale-hunting that Herman Melville sets out in Moby Dick. For some reason I have a fascination with tales out in the middle of the sea, and Melville dives fully into the area to describe the wonders of the oceans, document the old whaling industry and its social place, and tie it all in with mankind's relationship with 'god' and nature ('godkind'?). My review here.

  2. The alternative and diverse worlds explored in Writing Our Legacy's Hidden Sussex anthology. Each tale or poem from the BAME writers included here offers a little glimpse into a parrallel universe for me - like hearing the neighbours on the other side of the wall and wondering what their decor is like even though it is so close. We travel in our bubbles, form our carriages of what we know and love, and yet WOL has brought out voices that speak of the same places I inhabit, but with such different perspectives and backgrounds.

  3. The small, strange yet delicately delicious world of Cosmo D's Norwood Suite - a game. Or a story, hinted at, through a labyrinthine hotel setup on its last legs, host to a night of odd revelation. As games go, this is short enough - about my level. But the soundtracks and depths which lurk mean that you always feel like you could tumble into it forever and remain trapped. The trailer shows off why it was also a good game to get out my virtual camera for:

  4.  The world-concept that is Permaculture, listed alongside the others here as it is something I have mostly only been reading about. Coming about through putting the Beamspun newsletter together, I found that people have been doing solarpunk far more practically and for a longer time than I had realised. After reading a few books such as Masanobu Fukuoka's One-Straw Revolution and Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design, and hanging out on the reddit, I can link together a few strands in my life much more strongly - namely taoism and wu wei, with a sense of nature, impermanence and ... happiness? It is strange to think of a concept as a world, if the main aim is to live in a different world which is actually the same world. It reminds me that 'the modern world' is as much a construct as any other novel.

    Drawing showing energy flows in permaculture design

    (Image by Fiona Campbell, via Russ Grayson's post about Rosemary Morrow.)

  5. The grittily-extruded world of Moshe Linke's Fugue in Void, a wander through claustrophobic gallery structures and the edges of dreams. This was when I properly started taking some in-game shots, and while the larger project around videogame photography has yet to materialise, I did manage a Fugue in Void narrative-gallery by way of experiment.


Phew, that was a hard choice.  Honourable mentions go to William Kamkwamba's famine-caught world in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the recent history of India and Kashmir in Arundhati Roy's Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and the hilariously bonkers land that belongs to Maro & Luigi's Superstar Saga.

It's been a long year. What worlds have you found joy and solace in?

Review: The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles

The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles

The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles by Carolyne Larrington

3 of 5 stars:

This was a decently comprehensive look at the various figures, spirits and themes that bind the British landscape and its history together. As others have mentioned, this is more of a reference book perhaps - I wasn't sure the book's thread and its categories helped navigate things much, and I think I prefer formats with more of a compendia or atlas-style approach. Having said that, there are some fascinating tales in here, and some good reminders of how much lore has been constantly reinterpreted and evolved by modern writers.

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Review: The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity

The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity

The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity by Amir D. Aczel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting read - intriguing glimpses into the lives of mathematicians, some rather inaccessible (but expected) maths, and some hauntingly mindblowing aspects that hint at the nature of "infinity" to exist at the curled edges of our own consciousness, for something to exist outside of what we can humanly conceive of. That's slightly nuts, TBH.

Would suit anyone with an interest in the weirder side of numbers and philosophy - maths background helps, but this isn't about formulae as much as how human concepts get turned into explanations. The 'battle' between real numbers and continuous number lines, for example, is one which is something that most kids will happily puzzle away at.

I will probably list this for sending/swaps, so let me know if you're interested in it.

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 (NB. Playing with posting to my blog from GoodReads. Review content doesn't seem to get published? I like the idea of populating my RSS feed a bit more though.)