All posts made in Nov. 2008:

15:30, Sunday 30 Nov., 2008

Books read November 2008, with date finished:

I read Pirsig first when I was maybe 17, a copy from the year the book was published (1974) in fact, my parents' copy, and this was a period of time when books would mean a lot to me, this one especially, and so when I lent it to a friend I was disappointed that circumstances (I don't recall, just missed chances and then the moving away of everyone and the drifting apart of that group) meant I didn't get it back. Earlier this year or maybe last year at a birthday party that I, in a somewhat unlikely fashion, attended, my long-time-ago friend also - and in even more unlikely a fashion - appeared, and it turned out she had brought Pirsig along with her, just in case I was there, and so after 13 years I have the book back. It's pretty good, and presents a number of neat approaches and vocabulary, but I feel differently about Pirsig now and so I feel distant from the ideas despite having the physical thing in my hands.

Bhagat was also a little disappointing: I love the lyrical quality of Indian English, and enjoy reading the Times of India online, but the story didn't transport me. Le Guin is a favourite but I've maybe read it a little too recently; Moorcock is amusing but that's it; the design work and discussion in Product as Landscape is thought provoking and again shows some neat approaches, but didn't inspire in me any cascade of epiphanies.

American Psycho is disturbing. It's another book I first read at 17, I think, and I re-read out of curiousity. Ellis is a masterful storyteller. The tone is hypnotic and the chapters - it's a sequence of long photographs, I guess, a story told under strobe lighting - vivid and lucid. Humanity, when you see it once maybe twice, is a glass of fresh water. Compelling and horrible.

I'm beginning to feel about Nabokov how I feel about Vonnegut: an author I wish I'd found much earlier, both holding a level of control over their writing that means everything you want to read into the story is there and more besides. That quality lets the words burrow into you much deeper. Pale Fire is a poem by one author followed by detailed commentary by his friend and the story emerges, as in several books I've read this year, only in motion, slowly and from the coming together of many small and hidden parts. The story is steganographically encoded, unpacked by the act of reading. These stories cannot be summarised. Highly enjoyable; recommended.

So far in 2008 I have read 99 books (not counting online stories or graphic novels) and so my target for December is to finish another 5. These I have in hand although life details (moving flat, which is both time consuming and will eliminate my commute, which is where I read most; a different pattern of going out; energy devoted to reading; the holidays) may prove to make this challenging.

Interconnected

A weblog by Matt Webb, CEO of BERG, makers of BERG Cloud and Little Printer.

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11:00, Monday 17 Nov.

In contrast to the structures that I talked about the other day - the ones that Rothko and Markson set up halfway between your mind and what is ostensibly their art (but their art is actually these collaboratively unfolded mental sculptures) - I want to take a minute to talk about an alternative category of artistic expression, which is the transportation into the extended present.

There's something that happens when you listen to the music of Steve Reich which is that the pattern is at least short term predictable, and so you hear not only the presently-playing music but also you hear the previous 10 seconds (by memory) and the next 10 seconds (by expectation). And here I have to modify my argument with two points:

One: your expectations of music are not completely intellectualised. Your pattern recognition systems have their own particular grooves or lines of flight and so even when you know exactly what is coming up, your internal expectation might be different, like a corner on a known road which is always out of character. Two: this is of course true for all music, only it's easier to discern with the music of Steve Reich.

So what happens when your expectations are violated is a gap opens up between reality and your counterfactual present, a bridge over a chasm which suspended only because it is held at either end by the memory of the past and the predictability of the future. What's important here is not the bridge itself but the height of it, which manifests as either a tension - a kind of predictive vertigo - or a tickling. To me this tickling is the most enjoyable quality of this kind of art, arising from the joyful violation of expectations, and is only possible where the art allows the long present.

Another way the present can be extended is to make time smooth so that you slip over it and forget what the past is and what the future is. This I experience when I'm using the iPhone app RjDj, which takes the noise from around you and plays it back to you through your headphones, sliced and processed and echoed, so I'm not sure whether I'm hearing something live or a slice of it that is repeated a second later and incorporated into this generative soundscape. RjDj ends up being a world mindfulness enhancer because whereas I might not notice a sound because I am momentarily distracted by dodging a person on the pavement or reading a road-sign, here I have multiple opportunities in a several second window to listen. RjDj is especially enhancing when reading, because it turns out - at least for me - that my sense of linearity when reading down a page is anchored on time's arrow as it presents itself in sensory data from the world around me. Isolated from the moment-by-momentness of the world and having my sense of now extended by RjDj results in me reading the book page by page instead of sentence by sentence, having awareness of the page behind me and - because I am so aware of this larger context and the longer curve of narrative - an expectation of the page ahead. It dissolves the experience of reading.

There's a curious shift here in the focal distance of time. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, makes a comment that European men rest their eyes on an object so that they touch the surface, as if they are reading it, because of their history reading books; American men, by contrast, are from a televisual culture, and rest their eyes an inch or two ahead of the object, in order to take in a wider surface simultaneously. American women, says McLuhan, are disconcerted by Europeans because the men appear to be examining them closer, really penetrating them with the focal distance of the gaze, and this is felt as intimate and erotic. RjDj helps me move my focal appreciation of the present back a couple inches, a non-European connection with now, so that I can apprehend it; regard it; look at it from the side.

9 Beet Stretch, Beethoven's Ninth time-stretched over twenty-four hours, does this. Long hikes or drives through the desert - undifferentiated scenery - does this. Repetitive beat music does this; dancing does this; being in the flow does this. The communication of highly complex ideas relies on using rhetoric to construct a long present as a kind of carrier wave on which a subtle and highly structured object can be authored in the listener's mind: an example is the I Ching.

But to me it's this tickling quality that is what makes the production of the long present worthwhile. To have a constructed artwork that exists over time and mirrors your thoughts so completely as to mesh with your expectations, fooling you into thinking it's of your own origin, using repetition and rhythm to construct a smooth space over which you can slip between the past and the now and the easily expected future, and then to make a surprise key change, to demonstrate the autonomy of the artwork, well that tickles me and it's why A Thousand Plateaus makes me laugh out loud, and this is simultaneously the experience of flirting when you can find the flow, and of wrestling with a dog, and familiar music, and if you're lucky even your own body and your own mind, which are really one, and are yourself too actually, with their own grooves and own lines of flight, but still you reflexively look inward and predict yourself, incorporating that too, recursively, making a kind of extended present of self, which is what we call identity, and you make actions and create thoughts which are consistent with your sense of self, but sometimes, as I say, if you are lucky, your body and your mind can jump the groove and prove that they too, in the context of the long self, still have the capacity to surprise, and this, I conclude, making a comment on a feeling that makes me happy and how to achieve this, is how one is able to tickle oneself.

16:59, Thursday 6 Nov.

I like small plastic cows. I don't know why. I haven't owned any until today. For many years I have wanted a herd for my home, and 100 would do nicely. But there is no way I can justify spending that much money on plastic animals. I could however justify giving that same amount to charity. So how about 100 people buy me 1 cow each, and then I give £500 to the charity they vote for? It's a win-win. It's Matt Webb's 100 Head Cattle Drive 2008! Pass it on, buy a cow, round 'em up and roll 'em out.

11:09, Tuesday 4 Nov.

Books read October 2008, with date finished:

It's to be noted that 63% of the books I read this month have titles that begin with "The" compared to only 29% for 2008 as a whole (26% if you exclude October). The run of five is unprecedented, although back in March there were two groups of two separated by an indefinite article.

Høeg: Seismology is the study of surface tremors caused by the tension built up below the earth's crust. The study of love represents the seismology of the individual and of togetherness. This is one point of view: Høeg's characters are all have deeply different approaches, and I am arrested by how he is able to see love in such a variety of profound ways:

Information, a collection of essays from 1962, has a delightful turn of phrase: computers are referred to as "workers" and timesharing a computer installation is a way to keep them "gainfully employed." It makes me wonder when the word "working" changed from meaning productively labouring towards a goal to simply not broken. There's also this quote: They are called computers simply because computation is the only significant job that has so far been given to them. (Ridenour, 1952)

I've read Tainter's review of collapse before. He comes to a view that complexity has diminishing returns, and a change in circumstances can mean it makes economic sense for the population to decomplexify their society. It's a must read. An op-ed in the New York Times pointed out that Although banks perform an essential economic function — bringing together investors and savers — they are not the only institutions that can do this. It's true. Just as the internet reduces our dependence on high street shops and advertising to choose the products we encounter, and big entertainment verticals to choose what media we consume to unwind, it also reduces the importance of banks as a problem solving mechanism for how capital and entrepreneurs meet. But the financial sector, as an organ of complex society, must be paid for. If its complexity is no longer required, perhaps we are all better off to see it simplified.

My recommendation this month is for On the Road. To mix pace and narrative and meaning like that. I was carried away. Poetry!

10:16

Two days ago, Sunday, I joined the Tate as a member to get access to their Members Room to have somewhere to sit to read my book and have a coffee. The cheesecake there is pretty good. I was looking out onto the river. I rarely see London from the side, and it was strange being six storeys up to not see the buildings looming up or from above, as from a plane, and not closing in on me but, as I say, from the side and set back from me somewhat, across the water.

I think it's good for the soul of a city to be able to take itself in, and that's something that Brighton can do, looking back on itself from the beach and the pier, and that San Francisco does very well, from above and across, but London cannot and in consequence often feels like an ant hill, with all of us the ants. When I am in London, I am inside it, in its belly. I cannot take it in. From the side I am not high up enough to look down on the city as a map, so I see London as a collection of buildings and cars and people, at a human scale, and with a little distance I am able to appreciate it, to study it. To apprehend London. It's a rare view, the one from the side.

The water and the sky and the buildings had, because of the lowness of the sun and the overcastness of the clouds, the same flatness of illumination and the same quality of colour, blue brown green. The Thames itself was highly reflective and it was possible to see the dark blue tint of the sky, but look through that and beyond it had no translucency, not even a little, so it looked like oil and moved like oil too: not just choppy (which it was) but rippling too so between every wave was another wave, and so on. The Thames was over-full, brimming, and the waves moving slowly as if the water was heavier today, or the air was thick, or gravity different in some way.

I understand that young people have translucent skin and so, in the light, they appear to glow, light reflecting from multiple depths of the skin simultaneously so their outer shell appears to fluoresce. The skin of adults is opaque, like old plastic.

Piercing through these three, the water, sky and city, was the reflection of the setting sun on a building, a blinding orange light smeared out and organised into a grid by the window. And on the river was an upright mirror the size of a billboard, on a raft and tethered, bobbing, glinting white then black, the waves speaking in Morse.

It reminds me of the last time I sat watching the Thames, waiting for a friend near the Oxo Tower, and again seeing London from the side. This time the river was flowing fast, and the clouds were moving fast, and the distances involved in both were such that I could see continuous parallax: those parts nearest to me moving quickest, and those furthest moving slow. And birds flew past me, and people walking and cycled past me in both directions, and boats went along the river, and overall there was a sense that everything in my visual field was horizontal; that everything was moving sideways today; that I might be on a conveyor belt.

Red on Maroon Mural, Section 2

After the Members Room I went to the Rothko exhibition, which runs until 1 February 2009.

There's something about Rothko's painting, especially a few of those in room 3, which means they operate somewhere different from other art. The interventions Rothko makes on the fields of colour are of the same order as the interventions my perception system makes, the way my subjectivity changes my perception, and the way the light and quality of the canvas changes as I move my eyes, my head and my body around the room. It becomes impossible to disentangle these influences, to know whether it is me or Rothko responsible for what I am perceiving and thinking. My reactions to the pieces in room 9 were of looking over a landscape: the heavy blacks at the top drew my head up, and the level of the horizon made me feel as though I was looking from a hill over a large plain abundant with life, or lying flat on the ground, or up at heaven. I was elated or deeply depressed. From where did this come? It humbles me. When David Markson writes, he's not writing the words, but writing instructions to author the thing that appears between the paper and my brain, which is brought into being and constructed by the act of reading. I cannot author on this level. Rothko was not painting canvases, but a structure held halfway between us: a delicate structure constructed by him and me both, where the art insists on me a certain context or emotion, causing me to feel the room around me he wants me to feel and to think thoughts felt as my own; simultaneously mirroring and leading me, like dancing, like speaking with a highly charismatic person, or really good sex when you can't tell whether it's you or your partner anticipating or actually something that is mutual and happening between you and outside you. Rothko's art is transcendent. I was enraptured. There were fireworks in my soul.

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