Writing

w/e 24 Sep 2017

A little late this week. Work, Banksy, Mother! and London.

This week, on the work front, I was doing some more Django coding for Hactar, adding features to a previous project.

I was also getting almost unreasonably annoyed by the two pieces of graffiti left by Banksy just downstairs near the Barbican. Leaving aside whether the work is good or not, I’m frustrated with how differently Banksy’s graffiti is treated to any other. We’re very fortunate here that any graffiti is usually removed pretty quickly, but Banksy’s resulted in a 24-hour security guard to keep watch over it and then, five days later, sheets of clear plastic fixed to the walls to protect it.

It’s as if all burglars are pursued by the police except for this one guy who’s really cool, yeah, so whenever he does a job we send him any of the valuables he overlooked. Given that Banksy’s messages are generally “sticking it to The Man” it seems odd for his work that it’s now treated with such veneration by the authorities. He can paint whatever he likes, wherever he likes and people will fall over themselves to uncritically proclaim it as brilliant, and that it must be protected. But anyone else painting the same thing or (shock!) something even better will, rightly, see their work removed. Few other people have so much power to get their message out around London, except George Osborne shouting through the Standard. Yes, Banksy is practically George Osborne.

Grrrr. Anyway. I saw Mother! this week, which I liked, apparently a less-than-common opinion. It’s hard to say much about it without giving anything away, and it’s best seen knowing little about it. I can say that, for me, the biggest problem was that I didn’t believe Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem were a married couple, happily or otherwise. Which didn’t help with suspending disbelief for the madness that follows.

I’ve managed to get through an unusual number of books recently and this week I finished London: A Social History by Roy Porter. Although I’ve lived in the city for over twenty years I don’t think I’ve read a comprehensive history of the place before and this was everything I’d want from one. I got a good sense of the city’s stuttering start and then its peculiar, and quickening, growth, along with what that meant for the people living here. London’s such a strange place.

The final chapter, written in 1994, is peculiar, and interesting, because he summarises the state of London at the time. It’s before Tony Blair as PM, before the internet, before Docklands became properly established, before the Greater London Authority, before the housing “boom”, and long before the 2012 Olympics and Crossrail. Having summarised centuries of change so well it’s odd to read what’s now a humorously patchy assessment of the state of London. It seems like anyone writing a long history of something should resist temptation, and call a halt to their narrative at least twenty years before the present day, before they lose the perspective. A minor oddity though, and still recommended.

That’s it, time to start another week.

In Week notes on 25 September 2017. Permalink

Week ending 17th September 2017

If these end up being this regular, I’m not sure what to call each one.

I started the week with reading Interactive Data Visualization for the Web by Scott Murray which was as good an introduction to D3.js as I’ve read. I can’t tell if it’s much clearer than anything else I’ve tried or that, because I now know much more, it seems clearer. The beginning is certainly basic, but it does include a good, rapid introduction to HTML, CSS and JavaScript in case you’re a non-coding designer or journalist (or whatever) who wants to get to grips with D3. Good luck. Even after working with D3 for a few years (very off and on) I can’t imagine making anything using it that doesn’t involve adapting something previously written.

FinishedAlso this week I finished the last of the 12 books (or four bigger books) of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It feels good to have finished it, like a very long run through some fine but only occasionally interesting countryside. I felt the same about C.P. Snow’s eleven Strangers and Brothers books which I read before this. Perfectly OK, and not hard to read, but it sometimes felt like it was only the finishing line that kept me going.

I’m sure plenty was written about the similarities between the series when they were published. Both are first person accounts of a man’s life during the first three-quarters or so of the twentieth century. Snow’s narrator has more humble beginnings but both have comfortable lives in London, with (spoilers!) wives and children. Both make some of their living by writing books. Neither goes into much, if any, details about their children growing up, what their life as an author is like, or reflects on how they must appear to others. We get very little sense of what either is like as a person, other than as an inoffensive, capable, sociable-but-not-extrovert observer of the people and world around them. From these accounts both men are unemotional with often peculiar senses of what’s important (Powell’s has no sooner mentioned he’s taken a fancy to a woman than the next chapter begins some time after they got married).

The authors’ styles are different but I’m not very good at analysing literature so can’t identify what these difference are, other than the most obvious (e.g. Powell’s notoriously lengthy sentences). Perhaps a parody of each will illustrate. First ‘Little Jack Horner’ as if written by Anthony Powell:

Horner had got himself established as far as possible from the centre of the room and I was suddenly made aware, as one often is by actions which are in themselves quite commonplace, that he was about to do something which would give him enormous satisfaction. He had somehow acquired a large seasonal confection which he was beginning to attack with a degree of enthusiasm I had not seen him display since the midnight feasts we had enjoyed at school. Eschewing the normal recourse to eating utensils, he plunged his hand through the pastry and extracted an entire fruit, an achievement which was accompanied by a cry of self-congratulation and a beatific expression reminiscent of some of those on the faces one sees in the more popular of the pre-Raphaelite portraits.

(From The Quotable Powell, where the citation reads “By Prof. Alan Alexander; reproduced in E.O. Parrott, Imitations of Immortality; Penguin, 1987. Originally written for New Statesman.”)

Strangers and BrothersAnd then what I think is part of a whole book written as a C.P. Snow parody:

Paunceley was regaling us with the clarets of 56.

‘This is very civil of you, Senior Tutor’, observed Mainwaring.

‘Thank you, Professor of Palaeontology and sometime Fellow of Jesus’, replied Paunceley. He seemed nervous, drawn, tense.

It was a languorous February night, heady with the rich evocative reek of sweet-william. The chrysanthemums blazed in the court, a Scotch mist draped the plane trees and above, in the sky, shimmered the stars — countless, desolate, shining.

I felt increasingly uneasy about my tendency to fire off adjectives in threes. It was compulsive, embarrassing, ineluctable; but at least it fostered the illusion of a mind that was diamond-sharp, incisive, brilliant.

‘I have asked you to come here before breakfast’, continued Paunceley, ‘because I have a most unsavoury revelation to make to you about one of your colleagues.’

I glanced at Grimsby-Browne. He seemed suddenly immensely old, haggard, shrivelled. Had he committed to the unforgivable and falsified a footnote? I studied Basingstoke, the Bursar. He too seemed suddenly bowed, broken, desiccated. Had he done the unspeakable and embezzled the battles? The scent of Old Man’s Beard saturated the combination room.

‘It concerns Charles Snow’, said Paunceley.

The tension was now unbearably taut, torturing, tense. The plangent aroma of montbretia seemed to pervade every electron of my being.

The Senior Tutor’s tone was dry, aloof, Olympian.

‘I have discovered that his real name is Godfrey Winn.’

(This is quoted in Native Speakers and Native Users: Loss and Gain by Alan Davies, where the citation reads “C.P. Snow, Strangers and Masters. Martin Fagg, in Brett 1984: 326-327).” Here’s an obituary of Fagg.)

Anyway, both are perfectly fine and readable, and reading a man’s entire life, while others are born and die around them, is a little affecting, despite their unemotional tone. I’d hesitate to actually recommend anyone devote their time to a dozen novels. But if you were to go for one, Powell was the most enjoyable read.

Friday eveningThe past four days we’ve been in the Herefordshire countryside doing not very much. A few days of little noise other than birds singing and a distant tractor. No Twitter or internet or news other than a daily “paper” and Instagram… An odd feeling of being pleasantly cut off from events and being unsure if that matters or not.

While there we watched the third season of Peaky Blinders which was, as ever, fun. I avoided the series when it started, mainly because the title somehow seemed excrutiatingly “banter”, despite being the name of a real life gang of the period. But a friend loaned us the first two seasons and once I got over the title it was much better than expected. Good performances, good characters, good settings and, occasionally, the always enjoyable and a bit silly, Tom Hardy. It compares well against the excellent Boardwalk Empire; gangsters in the same period, but in very different locations. My initial doubts are, unfortunately, occasionally confirmed when the show tries to be a bit “rock’n’roll” - every episode must feature at least one scene of slow motion swaggering or fighting to a modern rock soundtrack, as if in a Tarantino movie called Banter O’Bantface. But aside from that, we’re looking forward to the next season.

That’s all for now. Have a good week!

In Week notes on 17 September 2017. Permalink

This week

Some things that I’ve done, watched, read and listened to this week.

This week in quasi-work… I spent a couple of days making these charts of series of books. That was a bit quicker than expected, which was satisfying. Maybe my brain is, finally, slowly rewiring itself enough that some of D3.js makes sense.

For the past couple of years, at least, I’ve been unable to make any changes to the CSS or JavaScript over on Pepys because the Gulp-based build system stopped working and I couldn’t face getting it going again. So I couldn’t easily fix anything. Modern web development is brilliant.

But last week I got it going again. I spent a day or so swearing at Makefiles before going back to Gulp and got a newer, simpler, better Gulpfile working so I could, at last, clear a backlog of little Pepys bugs. How we got to a stage where writing CSS and JavaScript involves spending a couple of days on the command line is beyond me.

With that working I could also make a new D3.js chart showing Samuel Pepys’ growing wealth over time. After more than 14 years there are still new things to add.

I also finished reading the latest edition of Two Scoops of Django which is full of handy learned-through-experience tips for building Django-backed websites. Very good, although I now have a list of things to change on a couple of sites. It never stops.

On telly… We finished season six of The Good Wife which I won’t say much about because I don’t want to spoil @AllSevenSeasons’ viewing. As ever though, easy and entertaining to watch, certainly not bad, but often infuriatingly nonsensical. Maybe The Good Wife is premium mediocre TV?

It’s also time for new seasons to start on old-fashioned broadcast TV. Grand Designs and Educating Greater Manchester are now both comforting in their sounds, visuals and formats. I’m pretty sure Kevin McCloud is ruder than he used to be, pretty much telling people mid-build that they’re idiots before, 95% of the time, ultimately describing their new home a triumph. At least he can admit he’s wrong I guess.

When the first Educating… series started it was brilliant to see what goes on in a comprehensive (or whatever they are these days) school. The kids with problems, the hard-working teachers, the fights, the breakthroughs, etc. But it does feel like that power is diminishing with each series because we know what we’ll get. Lots of dramatic moments, narrative arcs wrapped up in one episode, some heartbreaking and heartwarming moments, etc. It’s still interesting, just less surprising. Because they’re so similar it sometimes feels like we now accept that the bad features of the schools/kids/parents/society are just how things are, and unchangeable. It’s normal. I wonder what it’d be like to set a series in a good private school, as a contrast. I expect it would reinforce some prejudices and disabuse us of others. It might make us think of the bad features of state schools, “Oh, they don’t have to be like this.” Maybe.

Morning!Books… This week I finished Hew Strachan’s The First World War which is very good. It confirmed how little I knew about the war, my images mainly being the mud and trenches of the western front. I didn’t know much about the eastern front, and how different that was, or the war in Africa, or in the Middle East. I hadn’t thought about how important transport was, or how tactics evolved during the war, or governments having to balance the number of men fighting versus the number of men making new weapons, vehicles and ammunition. Having to change how your country works in order to fight another.

Music… This week I listened a lot to LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream and Billie the Vision and the Dancers’ What’s the Matter With You Boy? (which I just now had to add to their Wikipedia page). Both are good in different ways. I know almost nothing about Billie… but I’ve enjoyed their albums a lot.

When I listen to LCD Soundsystem I imagine a group of pale, black-clad, grim-faced New Yorkers concentrating hard on playing everything just right, making the perfect rhythm, so that their leader doesn’t throw something at them. Later they will sit together silently in a dark bar, staring into their drinks, pondering the difficulties of life.

When I listen to Billie the Vision and the Dancers I imagine a group of friends in comfortable clothing, smiling at each other, having a lovely time, whether the song is jolly or sad. When someone makes a mistake they will laugh, shake their heads, and start again. Later they will cycle into the long Swedish summer evening and have a party by a lake with people from other nice bands.

Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other.

In Week notes on 10 September 2017. Permalink

D3.js book series dates charts

I’ve written a thing in D3.js to draw charts that show when books in a series are set, compared with the dates on which they were published. You can see three examples on bl.ocks.org.

Strangers and Brothers A while back I read C. P. Snow’s eleven-book Strangers and Brothers series, narrated by one man during his life in the twentieth century. The books are vague about exactly when they’re set so it’s sometimes hard to know how much time has passed between books. Also, the books’ narrative order differs from the order in which they were published. For example, the first book in the narrative, about the narrator’s childhood, was the third to be published.

Wikipedia lists the narrative order, which was useful when reading, but I was interested in how the books’ stories spanned the century and also how this compared to when they were published. So I made this chart to try and show this information:

Chart

The version on bl.ocks.org is clearer, with added tooltips.

It’s interesting to see how varied the lengths of the books are, in terms of years covered, and which books overlap each other. One of the odd things about the story is how self-enclosed each book is. For example, The New Men and Homecomings run concurrently but, if memory serves, neither refer to the events in the other in any particular detail.

We can also see when the publishing order differs from the narrative order — Snow obviously felt a need to go back and fill in some earlier gaps with The Conscience of the Rich, the third in the narrative but the seventh to be published.

I’m currently reading the final book in Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time, also a man narrating his twentieth century life, and wondered how this would look. (I obviously have a thing for long series of books. I guess they’re like multi-box-set TV series only… more boring.) Powell’s narrator is even more vague about the novels’ dates, and sometimes contradictory, so I used those suggested by Hilary Spurling in her Invitation to the Dance companion. (My enjoyment of the series would probably have been a little greater had I realised this volume existed 11½ books ago.)

Chart

This chart too is better at the same page on bl.ocks.org. We can see that here the books were published in the same order as the narrative. And that there are big gaps in the narrative of about a decade either side of the penultimate book. Maybe there’s less to write about as characters, or this character, anyway, gets older. We also see, as with Snow’s series, that the gap between narrative time and year of publishing gets narrower towards the end.

I thought I’d try one more series and, because I’m thinking of giving it another whirl, after reading the first two books a couple of decades ago, looked at Gore Vidal’s seven volume Narratives of Empire:

Chart

This is also on that bl.ocks.org page. Obviously there’s a greater distance between narrative time and year of publishing, particularly early on, which is unsurprising given the 178-year time span. It’s mostly pretty straightforward, with the major oddity being that the first book published, Washington, D.C. is the penultimate book in the narrative.

That was a fun project to stretch my D3.js muscles a little. A bit challenging in places but so much easier than I’d have found it a year or two ago. The code is all available at bl.ocks.org,

I don’t know whether I’d have come up with the same design before or not, but the horizontal bars are very similar to those on the MoMA Exhibition Spelunker I made with Good, Form & Spectacle such as the Departments graphic.

In Projects on 5 September 2017. Permalink

What I’ve been doing recently

I felt like writing something quick, not one of those long-simmering posts that grows larger and larger until writing it requires taking a week off or something. So, hello, here are some words about what I’ve been doing recently.

Work-wise… I left IF at the end of July. They’re a lovely bunch doing interesting and worthwhile things, but the role wasn’t quite right for me so it was best to leave sooner rather than later. Since then I’ve done some front-end work for Storythings, a dash of poking at tech things for Publish.org, and then a big chunk of Django development for Hactar. Which has all been a good re-entry back into freelancing.

Quasi-work-wise… I moved The Diary of Samuel Pepys from an Ansible-provisioned server at Digital Ocean back to Heroku. I learned a lot in setting things up over there, although learning it took ages. However, ultimately, it was too much work. I didn’t need to change things often, which meant I didn’t remember how anything worked, and I never felt confident it was set up at all well, never mind securely. Plus, while it’s interesting to learn new stuff, it’s still not stuff I want to spend my time doing. So, back to the comforting arms of Heroku, which is about £12 per month rather than £4, but it’ll easily save me £8 of time and background-level stress. I can now more easily update/fix a few things I’ve been meaning to tackle on that site for a while.

Still-at-the-computer-but-not-at-all-worky-wise… I’m going through a small pile of 100MB Zip disks from around 2000, before I wipe them and sell them, and the Zip drive, on eBay, for want of any other use. They all seem to work still, which surprised me. Unfortunately they have no documents on them I don’t already have copies of, or applications that work any longer. No long-lost treasures.

Similar-old-media-tidying-wise… I have four cardboard boxes of CDs that have sat on the top of the wardrobe since I ripped them all early in the century. I could give them all away but (a) that’s probably kind of illegal if I’m going to keep the MP3s and (b) I can’t quite bring myself to do that. So many of them meant a lot to me back then. So I bought a load of plastic sleeves as a way-too-expensive, especially-given-the-import-duties-I-forgot-about, means to reduce their bulk. This also means spending a few hours transferring CDs from plastic cases into sleeves before, I guess, putting them back on top of the wardrobe in fewer cardboard boxes.

Reading-wise… I recently read: Weapons of Math Desctruction which was good but a bit “pop science”; A Hologram for the King which was very quick and inconsequential; and Radical Technologies which was very good — more serious and interesting than the Contents might suggest.

Movie-wise… I saw Dunkirk which was, you know, big. And unnecessarily confusing, in terms of the timeline. And A Ghost Story which was brilliant and you should watch, and stick with, even if it seems too silly and too slow at first.

TV-wise… We’re watching The Good Wife, at about the same pace as @AllSevenSeasons, so currently part-way through season six. It goes down very easily, and we enjoy it, although we’re frequently frustrated by how apparently clever and perceptive characters can suddenly become really, really stupid for the sake of the plot. Oh, and how incredibly quickly things can happen (e.g. company take-overs, office moves, people moving firms) that would take ages in real life. There hasn’t been much else on we’ve watched recently… the summer lull on Freeview which, plus library-rented DVDs, is all we watch at the moment.

Game-wise… I finally finished The Last of Us which took way too long, given my quite occasional playing. It was very good, certainly one of my favourite ever games, not that I have a list. I usually find stories in video games get in the way of having an enjoyable time but this was a great balance of atmospheric narrative and action. I used a walkthrough because I dislike solving puzzles as much as I dislike stories. Now I’m playing Horizon Zero Dawn which I’m finding pretty tedious. After The Last of Us the cut-scene dialogue is woefully clunky, the fantasy/hippy/mystical atmosphere is wearing, and the RPG-ness of it is more complicated than I can be bothered with. Still, I’ve payed for it so will carry on, thinking of it as Horizon Sunk Cost.

That’s about all. Kind of like a loose sort of probably one-off weeknotes.

I hope you’re well and having fun.

In Week notes on 3 September 2017. Permalink

My old HyperCard stack

When I was at university we were set a project to use HyperCard on the few small-screened black-and-white Macs. I spent some time making a “stack”, as its interactive apps (to use today’s terminology) were called. Over 25 years later I can now run that stack in my web browser from the place it’s archived online.

Screenshot

It takes a while but eventually an old Mac boots up in your browser and you can click the floppy disk icon named “disk”, and the “PhilTea” stack to open it. Some fonts are wrong, but still. My fault I’m sure. It seems unbelievable enough that an old Mac can run in my browser, Moore’s Law or not. But I’ve been transferring that file from Mac to Mac, along with other increasingly useless files, ever since the early ’90s and assumed that I’d never be able to open it again.

Screenshot

I think, after a struggle, I managed to open it a few years ago on my oldest Mac, running in Classic mode, but the fonts were even more broken and I couldn’t work out how to get any screenshots off the thing any more.

Screenshot

It’s not an especially thrilling stack and it’s not finished. But it was, really, unfinishable. Faced with a tool that could link one thing to another, I started off adding quotes about tea. Then adding brief biographies of the people quoted. I realised there was no end to this, linking from one thing to another to another… if I had enough time I could link to all the knowledge in the world, using tea as the jumping-off point.

Screenshot

This was in 1991 or 1992, a few years before I got online, well before I’d heard of the web and its never-ending network of links. I would never say that I was independently as much of a genius as Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson or Tim Berners-Lee rolled into one. No.

Screenshot

Anyway, it’s amazing to see, and use, this thing again given that some websites I made only a few years ago will no longer work without a lot of effort. I’m in awe of the Internet Archive and the HyperCard Online folks who have made it easy to upload stacks (and helped personally with rescuing my particular file). Amazing.

In Misc on 16 August 2017. Permalink

Graphing the Guardian’s Eco Ratings for cars

I always read the Guardian’s ‘On The Road’ car reviews on a Saturday. They’re not detailed enough to inform a purchasing decision but I like car reviews that aren’t all Top Gear about things. I’ve always been intrigued by the reviews’ Eco Rating so I decided to graph the data.

The Eco Rating is given as a number from 1 (or 0?) to 10. Quite high numbers are given to cars that consume a fair amount of irreplaceable resources which always seemed odd to me. (And let’s ignore the eco-ness of owning a large metal and plastic thing in the first place.)

So I set about creating a graph that compares the cars’ fuel consumption and CO2 emissions to the Eco Rating, to see what the correlation is like. Here are a couple of images, but you get a better feel for it by playing with the interactive version on bl.ocks.org.

Chart showing fuel consumption compared to Eco Rating

Chart showing carbon emissions compared to Eco Rating

I created this with D3.js using data from a couple of years’ worth of reviews (all now in this Google Sheet or this JSON file). I think this is a “ladder graph”, a variant on a Slopegraph — read more about both in Charlie Park’s blog post.

If the Eco Rating bore close relation to the fuel consumption and emissions we wouldn’t expect to see many lines crossing over. But there are. For example cars with a 7/10 rating range from the Mini Clubman Cooper S All 4 with 38mpg to the Mercedes E-Class that does 72mpg. Their CO2 emissions are also quite different.

One might initially assume that if everything matched perfectly then the lines would all be horizontal… but the angle depends so much on the domain chosen for the left-hand axis that I think that’s not necessarily true. Less variation in angle of slope, and fewer lines crossing, would be good indicators of accuracy though.

It’s not like I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — that the Eco Rating is probably plucked out of thin air rather than being a rigorously-tested Which?-style score. But it’s nice to have my assumptions confirmed.

In Projects on 5 July 2017. Permalink

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