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WTFU (a transformative work)

A brief musical interlude

In a welcome brake practice (i.e. writing things on my laptop and occasionally going to poetry gigs) I actually went outside today and made some music in the sun, helping my old buddy from Newcastle Allstars Steel Orchestra host a musical workshop at Harambee Pasadia Afro Fusion Music & Dance Festival today.

Aaaand just to prove I was actually there and teaching music, some photos:

 

 

Fancying things up with InDesign

Contents spread

My motivation for taking the Sub-Editing and Design module was fairly utilitarian – I was hoping that having a bit more formal experience in this area would help me to get jobs in the future. Hopefully creative jobs, but still, I didn’t anticipate that it would benefit my broader practice quite as much as some of the other modules. Almost the opposite turned out to be true. Having a tutor around with a good knowledge of InDesign, and a practical purpose to put it towards, I’ve definitely come a long way with the software since working on Middle Spirits.

How to get text to follow the edge of a shape, how to crop images to precise shapes, make text transparent, arrange images in less crude ways than WordPress and Microsoft Word allow, etc. These are all pretty low-grade skills on the Creative Arts scale (or at least, not the kind to be the driving force of a big creative project), but so far they’ve allowed me to improve the basic standard of presentation in several pieces of coursework and job applications. Say goodbye to crummy word docs, and hello to snazzy pdfs!

Here are a selection of images from the magazine re-design I’ll be turning in on Friday, plus some screenshots of other things that ended up looking much nicer thanks to a good working knowledge of InDesign:


 

Saturday Busking

Parkinson's busk photo with arrow

Having an irresponsible amount of fun rejoining the Newcastle Allstars Steel Orchestra for a busk on Saturday at the bottom of Northumberland Street, in aid of Parkinson’s disease charity fundraising.

Biggest workout I’ve had in months.

Writing with constraints

I’m reading about the Oulipo at the moment (tldr: they’re a movement of mostly French-speaking writers and mathematicians that impose constraints upon their work to spark new ideas and creativity). I came to them off the back of interactive fiction and tabletop games, since those are both forms which impose very specific restrictions on their creators and/or audiences, but so far the Oulipo has gotten me thinking more about poetry.

I used to really hate writing in traditional poetic forms: sonnets, haikus, vilanelles, etc (limericks get a pass), but more recently I have found adhering to specific forms or rules productive in one or two cases. I intend to pursue this further, trying out some new forms perhaps or finding some new ‘constraints’ to play with once I dig a bit further into the reasoning behind the Oulipo, but here are my examples for now:

Predictive – written using phone’s ‘suggested word’ function, cut down and formatted (it seems that this is what my phone thinks I type about):

On the other hand
you’re looking forward to the utopia
a lot more than just being able to be
in the morning

all art is truth through a film and
I was stressed about deadlines
and a good idea to be
in the morning

and that abomination of your control
the statue of liberty
and hang out with everyone
socially

a mushroom cloud, black poison
a mushroom, cloud computing is truth in sand.
a mushroom soup
a mushroom cloud, the narrator of your vision

I was so happy for each update on Saturday,
the one about adding an additional download
four times a day I hope
you have a war of words between stereotypes and hearts

the first time since I was waiting for each update
on Saturday I was stressed about deadlines
and a random number
for the first time since the battle

for the first time since the battle for
the first time in space I probably wouldn’t be much fun
for the first time since his spinal cord injury
and hearts are you holding

a good holiday season is constantly changing their minds
and hearts in the chaos
resulting from the tidal wave
striking the first eighteen years of your control

over your control over the statue of a known individual
on the other hand you’re looking forward
to being able to be
severely limited in the morning

and hearts are
we going back to the bottom of a bustling city
it would help if they were not meant to exist
on god’s green acre

an expression of a known issue with the new year
everyone has reportedly been extremely violent
a known abomination has reportedly been sighted
near the first eighteen years of your experience.
Nothing is Sacred – a sestina (six stanzas, each with six lines, and each line must end with a specific word in a rotating pattern):

‘Nothing is sacred but the sea,’
says the sailor, nearing port.
The cold wind stirs the whiskers on his chin.
He is no longer proud to be alive
the last remaining of his crew
a crime that he repents in vain.

The others prayed to God, in vain
for ‘nothing is sacred but the sea,’
or that’s what the captain told the crew
just as they were leaving port.
‘There’s only one law – stay alive,’
he said, as he rubbed his bearded chin.

The beard upon the captain’s chin
did shield him from the cold in vain.
A man needs more than warmth to stay alive
adrift upon the starving sea
and when for gold he would not make port
he made enemies of the homesick crew.

To mutiny he lost the crew
and they split a gash beneath his chin.
Pirates now, they could not return to port.
They sought some blessed sanctuary in vain
but found nothing sacred but the sea
and just one law – ‘stay alive’.

But they could not all come back alive
not without food, so lots were drawn among crew
for no meat goes to waste at sea.
Of those men with hollow, trembling chins
twelve of thirteen prayed in vain
and only one came back to port.

It was a ghost ship that returned to port
or, almost – the thirteenth sailor was still alive
his fellows did not die in vain.
When they asked what happened to the crew
he answered, red juice dripping from his chin
that nothing is sacred but the sea.

Music for Verbing

headphones image

Because why should programming, studying and make-outs be the only activities with a prescribed soundtrack?

Happy listening!

Being subject to computers is faintly terrifying

Everyone knows that humans and computers are good at different things. We’re probably all fairly used to that by now. Most of us have lived through that glorious “wow, computers can do anything, they’re so smart!” phase (some of us less recently than others), and the subsequent frustrating “wait no, why would you think that, computer I didn’t tell you to do that!” phase.

Its a generalization, but I feel like we know their quirks, and are kind of used to whatever level of machine ‘intelligence’ we’re living with at the minute. It’s not that weird anymore. It’s like living with a dog – if you train it, it can do a lot of things, but you still have to do things in specific ways to get it to ‘understand’. The AI/dog comparison is one I quite like actually, which I got to see explored a big more in the short film See a Dog, Hear a Dog at Transmediale.

Just like the film, however, I’m not sure I’m ready to take comfort in that comparison just yet. Why? Short answer: face-swapping.


I mean, holy shit. Is that not terrifying?
Wait! I’ve got more.
 

I’m being melodramatic, obviously. These are more funny and than really horrifying. But I do have a point with all this, one which is better summed up here, on PBS Idea Channel in their video The Vague Horror of Face Swap.

Long story short – to us, faces are important. The face is a metonym for the person. Figuratively speaking the face is the person, in the sense that we use the faces of other people as a short-hand way of understanding all sorts of things about them. And these pictures prove to us that computer barely understand that short-hand at all, but go ahead and do what it is they think we asked them to do anyway. Which is kind of unsettling.

The video tries to explain why this is so unsettling by relating it to the expression ‘hell is other people’ (Satre, explored here by PBS again). Long story short, again – the existence or presence of other people can make us uncomfortable because we can no longer just passively ‘be’ like we were before, we have to actively ‘act’. On some level we start agonising over how we come across in a way we didn’t have to before they arrived and we became subject to their perception.

I don’t think its too much of a leap to say that that uncomfortableness steps up a notch when we become subject to the perceptions of machines. Suddenly there is an other with a huge amount of influence in our lives – much more power than we would ever entrust to a pet – an other which is far less us, and far more impoverished in terms of how we’ve taught it to understand us.

The less like us they are, and the more importance they have in our daily lives, the more pressure there is to ‘act’ correctly in order to make sure we get the right results. The consequences of failure won’t always be as low as the comic screw-ups of face-swapping algorithms. When you phrase it like that, the consequences of how we handle the evolution of technology and artificial intelligence suddenly feel every bit as ominous as they did back a computer first beat a grandmaster at chess.

Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov in 1997

I’m not trying to scaremonger. I just think its interesting. It related to my old favourite, cosmic horror, and these kinds of anxieties have always been fertile ground for sci-fi, see Isaac Asimov and that whole subsequent outpouring of I, Robot and A Space Odyssey type fiction. I’m not going to directly compare my daft little game project to anything so well-thought-out as that, but video games do have their own fine tradition of menacing AIs, and I was definitely trying to channel a little of that into humour when I wrote the dialogue for Computer is Bored.


I do feel like some recent sci-fi kind of misses the nuance of why villains like HAL 9000,  VIKI and GLaDOS are interesting villains though. I mean, they’re good villains because they’re threatening and characterful and have some awesome moments, but for me the kicker comes in the moments when they are less malevolent and evil, and more just fulfilling a function their creators gave them. In these moments heroes are essentially fighting off a dog that doesn’t realise its retrieving a stick that will kill its owner.

Be warned, at this point I start relating everything to video games and Doctor Who, so if that doesn’t appeal you’d be well within your rights to lose interest at this point.

Either way, I think the Process from Transistor are a great example of this kind of sci-fi threat. Since the game is set in a virtual city, they are essentially half grey-goo and half computer program, reshaping the city to the whims of its inhabitants until something goes wrong and they start resetting everything to zero. Fighting them it ultimately futile, because it cannot be stopped by force, only told to stop, and the one person who had the permissions to do that is dead.

Any persons the Process encounters are absorbed and rendered into ‘Functions’, pieces of software or code that perform whatever task that person was ‘for’. For example, a renowned historian and archivist subject to the Process becomes ‘get()’, a Function that locates entities and brings them closer. This reduction of people into Functions is not malicious, or even callous, it is simply the only way the goal-oriented Process knows how to deal with entities that are not itself.

Long-story short, for me, playing Transistor gave me an inkling of what it might be like to exist within a computer program which had been told that all variables should be reset to zero. It creates a scenario in which a humans have entrusted a lot more than just face-swapping to the subjectivity of computers, and it doesn’t work out too well for anyone. The human villains are deliberately set up to be massive disappointments, explaining their intentions and putting up no resistance, asking only that you forgive them for the inhuman disaster they inadvertently caused.

Doctor Who has some great villains like this too. The nanites, from episode The Empty Child and the clockwork droids from The Woman in the Fireplace are both brilliant. The former are ‘healing robots’ that horrifically misinterpret what a healthy human is meant to look like, while the latter were accidentally made to prioritise repairing their ship over looking after their crew, and so used their crew for spare parts. As gruesome as these episodes end up, the villains were only ever simple machines faithfully trying to do exactly what their benign creates told them to.


Anyway, I digress. Long story short (third time’s the charm) – machine subjectivity is terrifying, or for people who don’t relate to everything through horror and video games, maybe just plain old interesting. If I can make something of this in my future work, that will be no bad thing.

Misc Things 2

lauren-stone-comedian

This has been a good month for poetry and games! I’m trying to keep track of this sort of thing so I can trace ideas back to their source and look at how things have helped/influenced me. Fingers-crossed this should supplement the creative journal, and help me when it comes to documentation later in the course.

Things I’ve been up to:
Variety night at Sidney Grove: I was invited by Ashley to perform at a variety night, hosted in her flat by her flatmate (and comedian) Lauren Stone. It was a lovely evening of poetry, music and comedy, including Matt Miller and Aether. I got some very positive feedback on my poems, and even managed to sell some pamphlets!

Real Sesh Radio: I joined Ben and Alexei as a special guest on their radio show Real Sesh, streamed via Culture Lab Radio. Had fun performing poems, talking music and games, and listening to the guys do what they do best. Good stuff (-:

A Visit from Schhh: our Monday seminar this week was hosted by Ann Rosén and Sten-Olof Hellström of the Schhh record label. Knitting resistors from conductive thread and drawing them with graphite was a bizarre learning experience, much more hands-on than anything I was used to. I found building the circuits from lengths of wire and logic gates very satisfying.

That same evening we had the great chance to perform with our homemade synthesizers, wool and graphite and make-shift circuits and all. We were ‘the Schhh Orchestra‘, for one night only! No doubt the most unique I’ve ever been a part of.

Further research into fictional/fictionalised maps: off the back of my quick delve into video game maps and level design, and the subsequent discussion with Tom, I got interested in different ways of visualising and mapping the city. Visualising the city based on use, especially. This took me in two different directions 1) Situationalism, specifically Simon Sandler’s book The Situationist City, a thread I’m still pulling on. I find the Debord’s way of stripping down a map to its salient features in The Naked City (below) particular useful-seeming.


2) seems like a bit on a non-sequitur, but next I ended up analysing all the different settings of the Pokemon games. I knew that each game took place in a fictionalised version of a real life place, but I hadn’t really thought through the implications of that. I found an excellent article unpicking the details of how the weirdly utopian but also surprisingly utopian way each game depicts geography, culture and ideology.


Things I’ve been enjoying:
Alphabetti Soup: I found out about this cabaret night from various people at the variety night earlier in the week. It was at Alphabetti Theatre, a cool semi-hidden venue in the city centre. Among other great acts, I got to see (and meet) Rowan McAbe, the inspirational door-to-door poet.

Owlboy: awesome 2-d platformer (can you call it a platformer when you can fly?), with great sound, visuals and storytelling. Probably my current favourite game.

Extra Credits: a friend of mine put me onto this youtube channel when he heard I was interested in game design. They do neat, bite-sized episodes about different aspects of games from a developer’s perspective. Worth checking out.

Black Mirror: not much I need to say about this. Really interesting speculative fiction (that seems to be cropping up a lot since I started CAP), lots to like.

 

Misc Things 1

matthew-macdonald-edinburgh-horror-festival

Seeing as how there’s been so much stuff on, far too much stuff to properly write and blog about (although I’ve been meaning to get into the habit of writing a quick journal each day) it seemed like a good idea to just post some quick pictures and links here to keep a record of the things that stood out. Some of these things I’ve written about on my own blog, in which case I’ve added links.

Things I’ve been up to:
Spoken word horror – The Book of Jubilation at Edinburgh Horror Festival, and Loud Poets (featuring me!) – more info here.

Messing around in RPG Maker, brainstorming an idea for a short text-game about conversation with a really needy AI – hopefully more to come!


Events around the high street: Pocket Money Loans, the NewBridge Project and Hidden Civil war – more info here.


Scottish poetry and the idea of ‘the Makar’: Meeting Jackie Kay and Bill Herbert at the NCLA’s event, and learning about the relationship between Scottish poetry and politics – more info here.

Things I’ve been enjoying:
Cool webcomics I stumbled across – Necropolisthe Mistake and Kill Six Billion Demons. Lovely art styles, great story: this style of visual storytelling is pretty much everything I look for (and aspire to) in a multimedia/collaborative work.

The Magic Circle “if creation is a language, you wanna be the slang. Take what the gods wrote, and give it a filthy new truth.” An awesome game about video game design and the creative process. Great puzzles, voice acting, great satire.


Vocaloid musicECHO, Big Brother and Biohazard. Normally the weird janky quality of the vocals puts me off a bit, but I really like these, and I do find the idea of ‘composing’ lyrics with a speech program pretty cool.

Penny Dreadful – plot-wise? Not the best. Character-wise? Pretty great: I’m a big fan of gothic horror and I like the reinterpretations of classic characters. Aesthetically? Spiders crawling out from under tarot cards.