More sci-fi

While I was away in France, I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. The contrast between good and bad is pretty b/w, a little less nuanced than in some of her other books, but I really enjoyed it. It had some Heart of Darkness and Planet of the Apes (2010s reboots) vibes.

Off the back of that, these are a few new sci-fi items for the reading and watching lists:

  • La Planète des singes by Pierre Boulle published in 1963. I didn’t realise that the whole Planet of the Apes world started with this novel.
  • A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be, an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. It can be found in her essay collection Dancing At the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, can also be found bouncing around online. Recommended by GC. I need to get a better handle on Le Guin’s work in general actually, there’s just so much!
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer published in 2014. The movie was based on this book, apparently both are pretty good but the book is particularly strong. Recommended by FB and GC.
  • FB, GC, and I were talking about how the strength of so much great literary fiction lies in the fuzziness, the areas where the reader is trusted to fill in the gaps. This is so often lost when a book is adapted to film. David Lynch is good at hanging on to this stuff (see Mulholland Drive, for example), but I’m not a big film buff and couldn’t think of many others. FB suggested we check out some Andrei Tarkovsky films, particularly Solaris (1972).
  • Related to that read Solaris, the 1961 philosophical sci-fi novel by Stanisław Lem. I had no idea the movies were based on one of Lem’s books.

“Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are very polite. They are charming and highly intelligent. They have excellent dress-sense, and are kind to animals and small children.”

Just read the news that Susanna Clarke is due to publish her second book Piranesi in a year’s time. I’m pretty excited about this, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favourites. And I hope she’s feeling better, I didn’t realise that the long time between books was related to ill health (read interview) at least in part. Delightful news, particularly in contrast with the slimy state of current affairs.

“A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs…”

A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.

Elizabeth Holmes’s “comically vague” and high-school-esque description of Theranos’s blood testing “technology”.

Just finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carryrou. Carryrou traces the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes from the company’s beginnings at Stanford, to Holmes becoming the young female darling of Silicon Valley, to his own exposé and followup articles in the Journal.

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“I learn by going where I have to go”

I just finished The Farthest Shore, the third in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle. It is an ending of sorts, though there are a few more Earthsea books I’ll get to next. Though I enjoyed all of the Earthsea books, I think I like this one the best so far.

In The Farthest Shore, Earthsea is being sucked dry of life. Instead of this manifesting in nature, withering trees and that sort of thing, it is apparent in people’s behaviour towards each other and towards their professions. Though I’m not sure if she purposefully set out to do so, Le Guin paints an extraordinarily accurate picture of depression. She also demonstrates how dangerous and painful it can be to be exist without pride.

Ultimately, the deterioration of Earthsea has a single cause that is identifiable and fixable, with great effort and cost. Wouldn’t it be nice if the big problems we face in real-life were similarly solvable… Maybe they are.

So many passages in this book are worth remembering.

Ged giving counsel to a hypothetical king:

My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.

Which is related somewhat to this part of the afterward, where Le Guin describes how she came to create Earthsea:

The poet Roethke said, “I learn by going where I have to go.” It is a sentence that has meant a great deal to me. Sometimes it tells me that by going where it is necessary for us to go, by following our own path, we learn our way through the world. Sometimes it tells me that we can only learn our way through the world by just starting out and going.

And Ged describing the way that a person’s actions can calcify their life:

When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.

Reminds me of a very short bit from Bill Callahan in his recent Guardian interview, on how it is easy to forget about the importance of idleness when you are working and trying so very hard: “On your list of things to do, you don’t write: ‘Daydream’.”

TODOs: automation, films, pens, reading, etc.

This week has been absolute chaos. Good though! A few things to remember, and to follow up on.


I keep coming across Automate the Boring Stuff, and keep forgetting to look in to it. Python was the first language I learned back in college with Prof. Maxwell, so would be nice to revisit it.

Same thing with films like Idiocracy and The Skeleton Twins. Made a mental note to see them years ago and then promptly forgot, so I’m noting them here as an ever-so-slightly more effective reminder. Idiocracy seems particularly weird, on paper it should have been a huge hit but it got absolutely sidelined by Fox and was screened in the bare-minimum of theaters. The reviews are crazy mixed. Still, I’d like to see it.

Something I *have* watched recently on SB’s recommendation is the BBC’s Ghosts. It’s hilarious and completely charming, a lot of the same faces as the original Horrible Histories but a completely different format. I’d watch the whole thing again, hope they do another series.

Last weekend was Offprint book fair in the Turbine Hall at the Tate, and probably my last event with OP. It was nice to see a few familiar faces including the guys at Here Press. Richard Hollis did a talk to a full house on his newest book about Henry van de Velde followed by a book signing at OP’s table. It was nice to see him again. He was using a blue Uni-ball Air for the signing. I’m going to keep my eye out for that one in the stationery shops, it’s a ball point that writes like a fountain pen (line thickness varies with pressure, but very little risk of leaks). The price seems super reasonable, the web’s retail giant offers a three-pack for just under £5.

GC recommended The Mushroom at the End of the World, and if there’s anyone I trust to give me great book recommendations, it’s her. I’m just hoping it leans towards the glass-half-full end of things, I’m not sure I can take more pessimism right now.

I might have a little bit of downtime while travelling over the next few weeks. If I do, I’m hoping to spend a little time looking in to Commotion, “a free, open-source communication tool that uses wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks”. Could use SiteSucker to grab all of the docs before I leave for offline reading. I came across Commotion for the first time via a link to Learn Networking Basics from Measurement Lab’s learning resources.

Big data? No thanks

Gandi published a long blog post titled “Mass manipulation and platform privacy: where we’re at”. It’s summarises some talks and Gandi’s perspective following a conference on “democracy in the face of cybersecurity threats”. I’d like to follow up on a few of the points from the post. I’d also like to find out what public educational efforts are under way. Surely someone is working on PSA-style messaging about the dangers of misinformation and how to identify it. It’s easy to be skeptical about that sort of thing, but it can stick. What’s the cyber-awareness version of “Only you can prevent forest fires” or “A slip of the lip will sink a ship”? James Bridle’s “Big data? No thanks” is related, but the version I’m talking about is more personal, about confronting your own confirmation bias. But not too ominous, also catchy and friendly? Tall order.

Every time I sit down on the tube I wonder about what other people see when they look at me, what they perceive about me precisely because they are *not* me. There is this slippery divide when it comes to understanding yourself. There are elements of yourself that you can never understand since it’s impossible to get outside your own head (one of the reasons that talking to someone else about a problem can be so helpful). There are other things about yourself that only you can ever understand, no matter how much time you spend attempting to express that thing. I have trouble articulating why this feels like a catch, but surely someone out there has tried. Just need to find them.

Richard Hollis’s book on Henry van de Velde, and a note on the index

Spread from book on Henry van de Velde by Richard Hollis

Richard Hollis’s Henry van de Velde: The Artist as Designer is out at long last. A lot of love, sweat, and tears has gone in to that book. It is absolutely jam packed, covering pretty much all of HvdV’s life with over 400 images. As part of Occasional Papers, I worked on the permissions, a bit of editing, and compiled the index.

Read about how the index was compiled

a little tired, but up and up

I’ve been behind. The past two months haven’t been great. But things are looking better, and the holidays couldn’t have come at a better time. We were in the US this time around, got to see more friends and family than I could have hoped. Here are some of the things we got up to.

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