Bait

We’ve been meaning to see Bait for some time. Written and directed by Mark Jenkin, it’s a film about the tensions between Cornwall’s traditional ways of life and the modern gentrified ways that are, rather tragically, undoing them.

Jenkin filmed entirely with a vintage hand-cranked camera and processed the 16mm film by hand. Seeing modern clothes, hairstyles and number plates on scratched, flickering black and white film makes the whole piece one jarring anachronism – as does the film’s sound, which was entirely added in post-production.

You don’t have to own a second holiday home to find this uncomfortable viewing. I found it difficult having merely stayed in an Airbnb or two. I loved it. Considering you’re mainly looking at fishing nets, beards and lobster pots, its tension-building is remarkable. Do see it if you can. We streamed via the BFI Player add-on for Amazon Video.

The need for maintenance

Funny that, in sharing this link, my first instinct is to apologise for it being 4 years old. I suppose that might have a bearing on its relevance (though given its subject, it doesn’t), but not its quality, and probably not the likelihood of your having already seen it in this age of content overwhelm.

Anyway, Hail the maintainers is a lovely essay by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel on the devaluation of innovation and the undervaluation of maintenance.

Some extracts from the piece:

Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

And:

The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired?

Also:

Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep. This realisation has significant implications for gender relations in and around technology. Feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track.

I’ve long complained about technology (and science) journalism’s obsession with newness – see my last blog post for example – but I suppose it merely mirrors society’s own neophilia. I’m very drawn to the idea of maintenance as a useful lens for focusing on the stories that matter.

None of which is to say that genuine innovation isn’t important. It’s just much rarer than we’re led to believe.

And now for something slightly different

I wrote a quick thing about Larry Tesler, inventor of the cut/copy and paste computer commands with which anyone who does any sort of typing on a computer will no doubt be intimately acquainted. Sadly, Larry died last Sunday.

It should have been longer but it’s half-term week, and February’s been another month of thinking more about writing than actually doing it.

I tried something a bit different here: to not include every name, place and date, but to focus on the thread I found most interesting.

I tend to fall down in trying to capture every facet and every nuance of a story. This made writing for Ars particularly unproductive, especially when it came to writing about breakthroughs with solar panels. Each time I’d remind myself of the atomic physics going on inside photovoltaic solar panels when they generate electricity. I’m not a physicist, so that took time.

When I glibly type that I’m not really a journalist, I’m not trying to absolve myself of journalistic responsibility. I’m coming to realise that, even since starting this blog, and some of the creative stuff I felt ready to dive into has fallen away, that, at the moment at least, true stories seem to be what I’m interested in writing about. Obviously the true bit of that is as important as ever.

But lately, I’m more interested in the story bit. That sounds obvious, but when you’re doing straightforward news reporting, you don’t need really need a narrative. You can usually build a structure with the inverted pyramid.

But I’m less and less interested in news. You’ve heard all about the evils of rolling, 24-hour news and news on social media. I used to think technology and science news was a little outside of that, and I probably still do. But I think the equally-relentless stream of science and technology news comes with its own problems.

With science especially, it gives a distorted sense of progress. Much of what I’ve written about in the lab hasn’t made it out into the world, or if it has, it’s done so relatively unnoticed. In focusing always on the new, we’re missing the really interesting bit of what’s happening in the world.

And with technology news, more than ever, I hold the view that not very much of it fucking matters.

I’m a very minor science and technology writer by any description, but perhaps if I can do something it’s to try to find more of those stories about how science and technology is actually shaping the world, regardless of the newness of it. And when I can’t find those, history is full of fascinating under-told tales. I’m getting a hoot out of those lately too.

In which I am bad at interviewing

A week ago (ish) I was lucky enough to interview Janelle Shane, author of You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, a book about the fundamental weirdness of neural networks. And then I wrote about it. Here’s a short blog post about how bad at interviewing I am!

Listening back to my interview recording to write up my story, I did a terrible job. I think this was mainly because I was either thinking ahead, or about too many things at once, or both. But my questions were also rambly and, rather than being open in a good way, were merely vague. Listening back I could tell that, at times, I came across as not listening, even though I was doing my best to.

Next time I need to do better at trusting the recorder (using a backup device, which I did) and just have as human a conversation as I can, because quite honestly, that’s enough of a struggle for me all on its own, what with, you know, issues.

Luckily Janelle is a an excellent interviewee and if the piece turned out alright in the end, that’s down to her. So yeah, I’m rubbish at interviewing, but I won’t give up all the while I at least have a plan for doing better.

Related: I dug out some advice from Columbia University on journalistic interviewing. IANAJ (not really), so I need to think a bit about which bits to apply. But mainly, it’s the human thing.

Men explain books on Wikipedia

I’ve just made a rare Wikipedia edit, on Rebecca Solnit’s page. I recently finished her book Men Explain Things To Me which a Wikipedia author had described as a collection of essays on mansplaining. Though I was expecting it to be that, and would have been very keen to read such a book, that’s not what it is. It’s much much more. Though I’d like to think I try to think about feminism, I could almost feel this book remapping neural pathways as I read it. It takes trains of thought on these matters much farther than I’m used. I only hope the tickets were one-way.

P.S. I’d bet a half-mile of copper cable that the offending Wikipedia sentence was written by a man who hadn’t read the book.

 

Grow Home

I found myself agreeing with Tom at Thumbsticks on generally preferring shorter games these days.

For me, though, it’s not necessarily because they’re shorter. As Aaron Sorkin is fond of putting it: “our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention”. The problem with the big-budget games is that they don’t sustain their length with things like story, intrigue, delight and beauty: they just hurl more and more of the core gameplay loop at you. It’s bound to get tedious before long.

An exception would be the first-person shooter genre which, so far as single-player campaigns go, are usually short. Unlike open-world games, they tend not to reuse a single square-inch of in-game real estate. And developers can’t dole out side quests for the summer intern to script: there’s the main mission and nothing else. Everything in the game is bent on making that mission as entertaining as possible.

But I don’t enjoy those either, these days. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the not-drinking, but I find I’m almost hyperaware of my moods and how they’re affected lately. I don’t want to summarily dismiss violence in games, but for now at least, I find it a huge turn-off. It stresses me out and makes me grumpy.

The problem is that rules out a lot of games for me to play. Or is that a problem? There are so many games, perhaps this is a useful filter. Without it, I would never have taken another look at Grow Home, and I’m so very glad I did.

Grow Home presents you with a small, perfectly-formed game world which you climb by growing a sort of out-sized mega-plant. But you can float, and glide and latterly fly around in a beautifully freeing way. I love puzzle games, but this is an anti-puzzle game anything. There are things to find, which can so often be a tedious grind, but in such a delightful place it’s anything but. It’s escapism of the purest kind, giving you another place to go and simply be.

Here’s a video by YouTuber ghostypheus of just gliding around in Grow Home. Glorious.

On the usefulness of words

It’s an odd thing for me to say, maybe, but I find I’m putting less and less stock in the usefulness of words. You’ll often see writers say words are powerful, and that’s true, but often they’re powerful for the wrong reasons. These days, we’re more likely to read words on the recommendations of algorithms than people.

Unless used carefully, words can have a tendency to divide rather than unite; to mislead rather than inform; to push readers to the fringes rather than draw them to the middle. Writers are told to drop qualifying words that might soften the impact of their message, as if we don’t live in a world of infinite nuance. Perhaps the message isn’t the all-important thing. Compare the power of words to end an argument to the power of a hug or putting the kettle on.

I used to have faith in the potential of words to perfectly encapsulate ideas, but I think I’d rather read words that spark ideas rather than contain them. We expect the reader to interpret meaning exactly as the author intended – a burden we’d never place on the audience of a painting or symphony.

But I don’t despair. In some ways this is liberating. I’ll keep writing, because it’s probably too late for me to start something else. But forgive me if I approach the empty page a little differently than I used to.