No Furniture So Charming

04 April 2011

I’m going to be talking at No Furniture So Charming – part of the London Word Festival – towards the end of February.

A night devoted to the architecture of knowledge and the future of book-borrowing. Much more than just bricks and mortar, the public lending library has long been considered the cornerstone of an educated and literate population, but what lies ahead for the future?

Borrowing its title from Sidney Smith’s description of books, No Furniture So Charming gathers artists, writers, creatives, technologists and architects to present their vision for the library of the future. Be it a personal utopia, a visionary work of science fiction, a digital or practical re-imagining of user centred design or a call to action.

I think – think – I’m going to talk briefly about books as social objects, and, specifically, the fact that books are friends with other books. And what libraries might do to emphasise that. That may all change, of course.

Interesting lineup, and a nice topic to sink one’s teeth into. I might see you there.

Matt Jones lent me this essay by Junichiro Tanizaki after I wrote about the soft, shadow displays of the Kindle over at the Berg website (and also, earlier, about patina).

In Praise Of Shadows is about several things: architecture, culture, and light. Tanizaki meanders around the topic of “shadows”, and the way soft, subtle, darkness is such an important part of Japanese culture. He ruminates on toilets, and lacquerware, on Noh, and on tradition.

It’s a rambling tour, but one with much to recommend it. Tanizaki was writing in 1933; he describes himself as “old”, but was 47 when he wrote the essay. Perhaps his affection for tradition made him feel older than he was. It’s also an interesting piece of writing, given its focus on the gap between West and East, and the Westernisation of Japanese society that was perceived as progress. It takes on an interesting resonance when you consider its place between two world wars.

Very much recommended – it’s a very brief read, and nice to read someone very comfortable with meandering in such a loosely structured manner. Thanks, Matt.

And now: some quotations that stood out.

p.14 – on how simple cultural artefacts reflect and influence so much of a culture:

To take a trivial example near at hand: I wrote a magazine article recently comparing the writing brush with the fountain pen, and in the course of it I remarked that if the device had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese it would surely have a tufted end like our writing brush. The ink would not have been this bluish color but rather black, something like India ink, and it would have been made to seep down from the handle into the brush. And since we would have then found it inconvenient to write on Western paper, something near Japanese paper – even under mass production, if you will – would have been most in demand. Foreign ink and pen would not be as popular as they are; the talk of discarding our system of writing for Roman letters would be less noisy; people would still feel an affection for the old system. But more than that: our thought and our literature might not be imitating the West as they are, but might have pushed forward into new regions quite on their own. An insignificant little piece of writing equipment, when one thinks of it, has had a vast, almost boundless influence on our culture.

p.17 – on recording, and how the arts change to accommodate media:

Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines.

p.20 – on darkness and dirt:

I suppose I shall sound terrible defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the mars of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.

p.32 – on old paintings, found in the dark alcoves of temples:

The lack of clarity, far from disturbing us, seems to rather suit the painting perfectly. For the painting here is nothing more than another delicate surface upon which the faint, frail light can ply; it performs precisely the same function as the sand-textured wall. This is why we attach such importance to age and patina. A new painting, even one done in ink monochrome or subtle pastels, can quite destroy the shadows of an alcove, unless it is selected with the greatest care.

p.58 – on the Miyako hotel, furnished in a Western style:

Light is not used for reading or writing or sewing but for dispelling the shadows in the farthest corners, and this runs against the basic idea of the Japanese room. Something is salvaged when a person turns off the lights at home to save money, but at inns and restaurants there is inevitably too much light in the halls, on the stairs, in the doorway, the gate, the garden. The rooms and the water and stones outside become flat and shallow.

p.62 – on age:

There are those who say that when civilization progresses a bit further transportation facilities will move into the skies and under the ground, and that our streets will again be quiet, but I know perfectly well that when that day comes some new device for torturing the old will be invented.

Coming to history anew

10 February 2011

The strangest affect of my possession of an iPad (I do not have an iPhone) is that I have become my own consumer. Each night after midnight when the daily page first announces itself I consult, somewhat furtively (even though alone), the Oracle that I have made. I am often surprised by pages made long ago and almost forgotten, as well as by the sometimes uncanny predictions they offer their maker.

The artist Tom Phillips on reading a book he made in app form. Or rather: reading the daily-page of A Humument, coming to it anew.

This isn’t about the technology of display – the Ipad. This is about the the way delivery changes the relationship a reader has with a text, be it one they wrote, or just one they’ve subscribed to.

And: having your own things returned to you, bit by bit, is always striking. See the Photojojo Time Capsule, or Twitshift, for examples of this in other media: your own history, trickling back to you.

Semaphore Networks

07 June 2010

I’ve just finished reading Keith Roberts’ novel Pavane. It describes an alternate history of late twentieth-century England, in a Europe ruled by a proscriptive Catholic church that has cracked down on technology and progress. The petrol engine is all but vetoed; electricity is heresy. Coal power is as advanced as things get.

The book takes the form of a series of linked short stories, described as measures; the rigid, stately dance of the pavane is an important metaphor for the wheels of repression and revolution, and though only directly referenced at one point, hangs over the entire book. It’s a beautifully written piece, especially as a piece of SF; delicate and ethereal in its description of the myth and magic rooted in English history, solid in its telling of a world where backstory has to be uncovered, rather than laid out.

Right now, though, I wanted to share a quotation, both for the vision it describes and the design it fictionalises.

In Roberts’ England of the late twentieth-century, the primary long-distance communication method is sempahore. Towers of various sizes, from giant, 12-man beasts, to little repaters, litter the landscape, and messages are transmitted, encrypted, across the nation. The Guild of Signallers is a powerful group as a result, and semi-autonomous from the church. These messages are not just sent point-to-point, either; they travel the land, bundled up with routing instructions, finding new routes when towers break down.

And, in one marvellous passage, coaxial messaging is explained:

The actual transmitted information, what the Serjeant called the payspeech, occupied only a part of the signalling; a message was often almost swamped by the codings necessary to secure its distribution. The current figures for instance had to reach certain centres, Aquae Sulis among them, by nightfall. How they arrived, their routing on the way, was very much the concern of the branch Signallers through whose stations the cyphers passed. It took years of experience coupled with a certain degree of intuition to route signals in such a way as to avoid lines already congested with information; and of course while a line was in use in one direction, as in the present case with a complex message being moved from east to west, it was very difficult to employ it in reverse. It was in fact possible to pass two messages in different directions at the same time, and it was often done on the A Class towers. When that happened every third cypher of a northbound might be part of another signal moving south; the stations transmitted in bursts, swapping the messages forward and back. But coaxial signalling was detested even by the Guildsmen. The line had to be cleared first, and a suitable code agreed on; two lookouts were employed, chanting their directions alternately to the Signallers, and even in the best-run station total confusion could result from the smallest slip, necessitating reclearing of the route and a fresh start.

I really liked that.

It’s not a representative passage of the book as a whole, though; Roberts isn’t obsessed with the machinery of a low-tech world, but the thought behind his world-building is evident throughout, and I loved (in this case) the construction not only of the mechanics of sempahore towers, and the shape of the network, but also documenting the skills and learning necessary to master it. It felt worth sharing, overlapping so many interests all at once.

On reading eBooks

26 February 2010

I didn’t read enough books last year, and I planned to fix that this year.

My commute these days is a bit longer than it used to be, but involves a lot of standing, especially on cramped trains and tubes. That makes it hard to read a book, doubly so if it’s a hardback. So I decided to see what it was like to read a book off a screen.

I decided to read Cory Doctorow’s Makers, mainly because a few friends had recommended it, and it was free, and that seems a good price point for an experiment. I read it on Stanza, a free iPhone ebook reader that I’d used before.

As for the book: I liked it. I really liked the short tory it clearly sprang from; I wasn’t so keen with how the novel panned out, but that’s because I’m really not a theme park person, and Cory clearly is a theme park person. The “making” parts were great, though.

Anyhow, this isn’t a book report; it’s a report on eBooks.

I enjoyed the experience, overall. I liked being able to pick up and put down the book far more easily than a paper one. I’d read it for 2, 3 minutes at most sometimes – when waiting for a sandwich, on a short bus ride to the station, and when I was on the way home from a late night out – just because it was always with me. I didn’t even need a bag: if I had my phone – which I always do – then I had my book. I really, really liked that – that was easily the best part of the experience for me.

I was worried that this stop-start approach to reading would lead to a more fragmentary experience of the book, but I was surprised by how well I always picked up the thread of the book when I returned to it.

It helped to get the page length and font size right. Making the text big enough to read, but not so big that I’m always tapping to move to the next page, dramatically improved the experience of using Stanza. (To begin with, I’d had all my type far too big, and I was “turning the page” way too often). Also: although Stanza will let you flick pages left and right, tapping on the left or right side of the screen is a much better bet.

To begin with, I missed having obvious progress indicators; I only noticed the horizontal bar at the bottom of the Stanza screen that fills to indicate progress quite late. Also, the “page X/Y, % of the way through” indicator was quite confusing: the latter represents progress through the whole book, but the former, this “chapter” or section. Sections weren’t always clearly defined – they were dependent on the book in question. defined. That said: once I understood the blue progress bar, it felt more like a real book again to me: a book that I was making progress through. And in the end, I was pleased with my pace of reading: not bolting, but not too slow. The only problem was that once the bar was clearly very close to the end, I sprinted for the finish line, bombing through pages to fill the bar and complete the book.

There weren’t many downsides to the experience. The big one was the same problem I have with all touchscreen devices: it’s very hard to commmunicate what you’re doing to people sitting opposite you. Unlike a push-button phone, where the difference between reading, fiddling, texting, scrolling through a contacts book, playing a game, are all reasonably easy to ascertain from the way a user taps buttons… on an iPhone, they all look the same. It was difficult to communicate “I’m not fiddling with my phone, I’m reading a book.” Perhaps I’m just over-sensitive to external judgments, but I certainly was less likely to read in certain company – especially less technologically-savvy company.

The other surprising thing was the effect of the screen. Reading is a private experience, and I was surprised just how legible big text on a backlit screen is – not just for me, but for other people around me. This came to a most noticeable head (so to speak) during a reasonably, erm, detailed sex scene within Makers (the literary merits of which this is not the place to discuss).

I’m not a prude, but all of a sudden, I felt very exposed: the screen was so bright and clear that I was sure anyone else could see what was on my screen as if it was in their face. Given I was reading it at 8am on a crowded train, I felt awkward; I’m not sure I’d want other people to see that, or think that all I was doing was reading, you know, smut. “It’s a fun book about technology and themeparks! Not smut!

By contrast, books and newsprint are much harder to read at a distance, and more easily kept to yourself through careful bending or angling. Also, I think people are more nosy about screens. Screens light up, they beg to be looked at, and that feels more ostentatious than print. This is one of the advantages of eInk: because it’s not backlit, it has similar privacy to print, and reading it seems more intimate.

I’m glad I read a book on a screen though, because I know that with only a little effort, it’s perfectly easy to read a full novel off a screen. I’m certainly less sceptical of ebooks as an application for portable devices, dedicated readers or otherwise, and I’m likely to read more books in this format. Although, right now, I’m unlikely to start buying eBooks. I’ve already paid for enough books in print, and most of them were secondhand (and I’m a big fan of secondhand books). I don’t think I’ll ever get the feeling of a well-loved, secondhand paperback from my iPhone – but it’s still got a lot to recommend it.