• "It now makes absolute sense that this comes from a nation a non-trivial amount of which is below sea level and who’s storied history is in fact chock full of water engineering feats. It stands now to reason that this could only come from the Dutch. Or some kid from Nebraska who just loved water parks as a kid, ended up baked out of his mind on the streets of Amsterdam for nine years until he discovered his long lost passion and talent for making side scroller games. Chances are it was both." Jim is writing about games and it's a delight.
  • "While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire." Ted Chiang on what stories about change and revolution do (and what _actual_ change and revolution also do).
  • Great piece of games journalism from Duncan Fyfe: the history and legacy of Mastermind. Wide-ranging, great bits of research. Love it.

    "The earliest reference to Bulls and Cows is in the work of Dr. Frank King. In 1968, King was studying for a PhD in electrical engineering at Cambridge University and looking for something to implement on the university's Titan computer, which had recently been equipped with Multics, a time-sharing operating system allowing multiple users to access one computer concurrently and remotely.

    Thinking a game would be enjoyable, and something more sophisticated than Tic-Tac-Toe even better, King wrote a version of a childhood puzzle. "Good grief, you've implemented Bulls and Cows," he remembers other students saying, though he called it MOO."

  • Greatly enjoyed eevee's history of CSS and browser-based code; particularly, I enjoyed the moment where you're following along with things you knew… and then you viscerally go "oh, _here's_ where I began!" I twinged as I remembered where I began, my move away from table-based layout… and then the point where I started battling quirks mode for a living…
  • "Everything is Someone is a book about objects, technology, humans, and everything in-between. It is composed of seven “future fables” for children and adults, which move from the present into a future in which “being” and “thinking” are activities not only for humans. Absorbing and thought-provoking, this collection explores the point where technology and philosophy meet, seen through the eyes of kids, vacuum cleaners, factories and mountains.

    From a man that wants to become a table, to the first vacuum cleaner that bought another vacuum cleaner, all the way to a mountain that became the president of a nation, each story brings the reader into a different perspective, extrapolating how some of the technologies we are developing today, will bur the line between, us, devices, and natural beings too."

    Simone has a book out!

Not Like A Road To Follow

23 January 2020

At the end of the course I’ve taught for the past three years, I offer some more general advice for existing-as-a-person to my students (who are studying “Digital Management”, and I am teaching them about technology.

I put up a single slide with the word

Read

which is advice you will have heard from countless Successful Entrepreneurs and Busy Executives, who tell you the importance of books, and then tell you all about these popular cognitive-science books they’ve read, or Books About Business.

I then replace it with this slide:

Read fiction

and usually say something like

Read fiction. I don’t mean “read sf to have ideas about the future.” I mean “read any form of fiction, genre or no”. Fiction allows us to have other ideas, live other lives, see other perspectives. It allows us to escape and re-consider the world from outside ourselves. It allows us to think at lengths and timescales that we may not from day-to-day. It is a shortcut to containing multitudes; to other minds.

Anyhow.

I was reading the The Atlantic writing about how they are publishing more fiction, and that put me onto this excellent quotation by Alice Munro. I like it a lot because it conveys to people for whom fiction is a linear thing, a narrative that starts and plot happens and then stops, the other thing that happens when you exist inside fiction, and why you might reread books. I will be using in future:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

(From her introduction to her own Selected Stories, 1996.)

  • "…in my personal life: to do things without making them a project in themselves. To have some rubbery-ness, greater fluidity, create space for criticism that isn’t going to kill whatever it is I am trying to do. To have more ‘unoptimisable’ time. To be physically engaged and not wrapped and/or rapt in my own head. To be shit at some things. To be present." This is good, from Greg; I ache for some of those feelings.

Greats

21 September 2019

Δεντρολίβανο says the packet on the table. And I, of course, know that this says DENTROLIBANO, pronounced in my head in a clear southern, English accent, every syllable delineated.

I do not know what Δεντρολίβανο is, and have to look further down the packet to realise that it is ROSEMARY.

I studied dead languages at school. (And, for reasons, a bit at University too).

Most of our peers didn’t understand why we’d do Greek. It seemed pointless, even more dead than Latin, and there was the hassle of a whole new alphabet to learn.

To me, it seemed obvious: someone gives you the chance to read words written over two thousand years ago. Wouldn’t you say yes? Wouldn’t you at least be curious?

 

Here is what I am left with:

  • ten years of Latin lets me stumble through gravestones and churches around the world, just enough vocabulary to decipher a decent amount (bar the eccentricities of Church Latin), and I can probably still scan poetry if I had to. It is exciting to look at stone, and see something come to life.
  • three years of Greek leaves me with a mere handful of words, practically no grammar, but I still know the alphabet.

What this translates to is: I can read road signs. It takes me longer than I’d like, which can be distracting when I’m driving, and there’s usually a romanisation underneath. But: I can read road signs!

I can read lots of other things too, speak them out loud, say them excitedly as we walk by or browse a menu.

I can speak the letters, and for every word that I recognise, either through old muscle memory of vocabulary, or, more likely, because it’s pretty similar to something in another language, there are a hundred more that I have no idea what they mean. (Like the Latin in churches, I fare better at the ancient sites – a few words in the stone at Messene, but mainly names, gods, goddesses, and my favourite of all, the long list of all the wrestlers at the Palaestra. At the pace I read it, it sounds like a classroom register).

And I definitely, absolutely, cannot pronounce it, as shopkeepers and restaurant staff across the Peloponnese can attest.

 

It’s not really DENTROLIBANO; it’s ‘dentrolivano’, spoken softly, with that beta becoming more like a soft ‘v’ in modern Greek pronunciation.

In my head, Greek is pronounced with the lugubrious tenor of my classics teacher. “ζῷον”, he says: “zdaw-ohn”, that omega extended with the lips in a perfect oh. (Zoon, “animal”, and off into zoological and so forth we go).

Dead languages read like history, but they sound like your classics teacher; all these ancient men and women (but mainly men) thousands of miles away, speaking in a plummy classroom accent where you can hear every letter and especially the endings of the words to catch their declension.

This is not what Greek sounds like any more, because Greek is not a dead language.

 

I knew this in theory, but I was really not prepared for how pretty it would be: those same characters spoken by tripping, delicate, mediterranean voices, breathy on the chis (but less on the breathings which I can’t see any more), all manner of rough edges smoothed, all those syllables neatly danced around. “ευχαριστώ!”, “thank you”; we get the Eucharist, the giving of thanks, from this, but here it is “ef’hristo!”, an everyday word that I find myself saying a great deal, somewhat apologetic at my lack of the rest of the language.

(We go to a chemist for some eye drops, which we manage to acquire between us, the chemist, the people in the queue and the chemist’s friends who hang out in the shop. I hear the old lady grumble something about Ελληνικά, and I want to say “Yes, I know! I’m annoyed I don’t speak Greek, you’re annoyed I don’t speak Greek, we’re all annoyed I don’t speak Greek!”. What I really say is: “ευχαριστώ!”)

 

Betas have become soft vs, upsilons are somewhere between an english “f” and “v”, the etas I say like “air” are now “ee”. It all makes sense when you think about it, but it is upside down to me. (My partner’s Greek colleague at work sighs when she tells him I studied Ancient Greek – “we had to do that at school, I hated it – it’s all backwards!” So we both agree on that, then).

But it’s alive, floating, bubbling. I think back to Xenophon’s Persian ExpeditionAnabasis IV, my set text at 16, written around 2400 years before I was taught it – and imagine all those men standing in the snow, marching on the spot in bare feet to keep warm (and in preference to the un-tanned sandals that froze to their colleagues’ feet), chattering in this rolling, living language. I have to admit, it makes more sense now.

I know better what their faces look like, and what their tongues sound like.