All posts made the week commencing Sunday 7 Dec., 2003:

I finished Reader's Block on the tube a couple of days ago. The style is unusual - a stream of dislocated assertations and questions - and two characters: Reader and Protagonist. But it's curious, the mind of the author (or the fictional author) becomes conflated with your own, and you're being guided what to think and simulating the bizarre leaps of thought that always happen but usually are immediately forgotten. It's difficult to tell who's thinking; it's the least frozen book I've ever read, the one which most acknowledges the provocations a text makes in the mind of a reader and works with that. This review explains more, but you can't convey the impression of a book that moves over twenty pages rather than two. There are barely perceptable rhythms, a beat at the edge of hearing, a tide that's really gentle (the best comparison I could make would be Vonnegut's later books, which are minimal sketches of huge and complex things, and heavily hyperlinked with both obvious references, and references you can't tell whether they're meant to be there or not); at the end I couldn't stop reading this list of facts, I wanted to know what happened even though nothing really does, it all happens in a shimmering almost-not-there image at the corner of your perception, and then it left me aloft and it was sad and I stared off into space for most of the day. Wonderful. Highly recommended.

"In general relativity, the future light cone is the boundary of the causal future of a point and the past light cone is the boundary of its causal past." From the moment of my birth, light [that I could have influenced] has been expanding around the Earth and light [which could influence me, from an increasing distance of origin] reaching it -- this ever-growing sphere of potential causality is my light cone. Today, this surface contains 29 stars, and is 4 months away from enveloping Pi-3 Orionis (Alpha Lyrae was passed 6 months ago). If you're using the brown skin of Interconnected, there's an automatically updating line in the flannel (see it) to count down to (and away from) new additions to my personal universe.

Data taken from the utterly excellent An Atlas of the Universe, which has maps from the solar system out to the the Local Group and beyond. There's a lovely 3d map of stars within 50 light years.

(Update. Whoops, my script has been showing the wrong number of stars. Fixed now -- 29, not 27 as earlier. By which I mean to say, there's a shell 5 light hours thick in which I'm wrong, expanding at the speed of light, and the wavefront of accuracy will never overtake it. Ah well.)

Thoughts about the Preamble (quoted earlier):

I like that it states that Europe is a continent of immigrants, and the long time-scale over which this has happened. The reference to humanism is also welcome, and that it's tempered by a mention of the important of religion in European thought. Two things that make me uneasy about this:

  • Most of the proposed amendments to the Preamble are about inserting references to Christianity. I don't like that: concentrate on the actual shared mindset rather than one of the models of such.
  • There are two ways of understanding "equality of persons". One is that people are essentially equal of ability and opportunity; the other is that people are essentially varied but are to be held as ethically equal. The second has generally been a European perspective and underpins socialism (and feels pretty French too, I think); the first is more American. The only way to tell the difference between the two is how the word "equal" is couched -- unfortunately the Preamble leans towards the first: this can be seen in the repetition of the individual and the State, but lack of reference to fraternity, community, intermediate, geographically distributed, multi-scaled networks of people.

The phrase "reunited Europe" is especially resonant, especially given that Europe has never been politically united (although various bits of it have at various times). Europe was last united in neolithic times, before the inseparable meshwork of land, people, community and trade separated into hierarchy, nations and cities. To force memory back to these times conjures an image of a diffuse Europe, an association or condensation of ideas, indivisible again into objects, but more like a topology: a landscape maybe, intertwined, with identifiable parts that bleed into one another, holistic; and it gives a future Europe a mythological base stretching across the whole of the Holocene. I wouldn't expect any less from a Convention chaired by a man from the country and generation that gave us poststructuralism.

Tying us back to the land is also good ("a continent"), and to the rest of the world is wonderful -- striving for people "throughout the world", and giving Europeans responsibilities "towards future generations and the Earth" (although I would have preferred small-e earth, giving us a duty towards the soil itself -- this would also give a hook for the ethics of information, which itself is an extension of environmentalism). Identification of "public life" as an entity which should have transparent nature is also a good step forward (both identification of it and the nature). I get the feeling there are many points of this constitution that we'll be able to (and other nations will be able to) point at in the future, and the shape this'll force on the Union is a good one (outward looking, respectful, modest and open hierarchies), or at least in general.

I'll admit that the language is clumsy in places, and parts could be read as bolshy. But Constitutions are supposed to be part descriptive, part prescriptive and part aspirational, so the tone suits me fine. The ponderous language goes hand-in-hand with a dense Preamble, almost every word of which carries fine European concepts, and this undertone is quietly spoken, and has the appearance of tough negotiation. So at least it's balanced and faces in all directions at once. Another European quality.

One last thing. Acknowledging "ancient divisions" and that we should "transcend" them is wise, and gives us direction. And reason.


Conscious that Europe is a continent that has brought forth civilisation; that its inhabitants, arriving in successive waves from earliest times, have gradually developed the values underlying humanism: equality of persons, freedom, respect for reason,

Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values of which, still present in its heritage, have embedded within the life of the society the central role of the human person and his or her inviolable and inalienable rights, and respect for law,

Believing that reunited Europe intends to continue along the path of civilisation, progress and prosperity, for the good of all its inhabitants, including the weakest and most deprived; that is wishes to remain a continent open to culture, learning and social progress; and that it wishes to deeper the democratic and transparent nature of its public life, and to strive for peace, justice and solidarity throughout the world,

Convinced that, while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcent their ancient divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny,

Convinced that, thus "united in its diversity", Europe offers them the best chance of pursuing, with due regard for the rights of each individual and in awareness of their responsibilities towards future generations and the Earth, the great venture which makes of it a special area of human hope,

Grateful to the members of the European Convention for having preparing this Constitution on behalf of the citizens and States of Europe,

Who, having exchanged their full powers, found in good and due form, have agreed as follows:

Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe [draft] [pdf].

The M6 Toll - the UK's first toll motorway - is opening this week. As Andrew pointed out [in conversation]: there are toll benefits purely because it's elitist. It's like a first-class section on a train or 'plane that has the same seating, the same worn carpets and the same buffet service as standard-class -- but people go there because other people can't afford to. It makes me uneasy. Two motorways side by side, one 45 minutes quicker to use and pay-for. At least universal tolls are democratic. (Although we could just go all the way and privatise the pavements.)

Was talking to Dan Hill at the office [the other day]. Apparently a good chunk of tv now, 50% in the early evening, is backgrounded -- people never used to have to tv on in the background, but now they just let it sit there.

We'd just been talking about, also, Group Listening and how that'd be really good for digital tv. It's slow chat. People would listen to the radio through their tv all the time, and listen to the same shows as their friend - with their friends, effectively - and send messages to them. But it wouldn't be fully immersive like a chat, it could be backgroundable like radio itself. You'd pop across the road to the shops, or vacuum the front room, and still carry on a slow conversation with people listening to the radio with you.

So: backgroundable EastEnders. What could we do with the medium (and these new expectations)? There's so much broadcast capacity now, instead of being half an hour you could have daily four hour episodes instead.

But the episodes would be more ambient. You'd see somebody's entire washing-up, or walking through the park, or going to work. Like the Big Brother live stream, said Dan. Viewers would phone each other up when something dramatic was about to happen (or happening). More than that, no need for flashbacks: you'd hear about events you missed because the on-screen gossip itself would be broadcast, even if the gossip wasn't part of the story, rather than just hinted at. It would be there to get you involved, so you go and gossip about it with your friends, and so on.

So, like Big Brother. This is true, but there's more than that.

There's a literary device where environmental features foreshadow/accompany the narrative. So it rains on someone when they've just been dumped, or there's a roll of thunder just before something dramatic happens. It's cliched now, but you could do it in a subtle way. A better way.

Ambient EastEnders is plotted, it's known in advance; this is unlike Big Brother. You could have effects like seeing somebody washing-up and the sun goes in outside just before somebody comes back who has lost their job. Or a person is walking to the pub (at which there's going to be a fight) and there's a mattress dumped on the pavement, fresh grafitti and so on -- it's all a bit grubbier.

These would be flags to get your attention. After all the slow drama, the gossip you don't need to really pay attention to, a half dozen cars stall in succession at the car lot, so you ring your friends and tell them to tune in because the car saleman's marriage is about to come to an unexpected halt in fifteen minutes.

It's building the runes in, making sure the animal entrials signify the next half hour of narrative.