Diaries

I told myself, and I wrote here, that I was going to blog more, about a month ago, and nothing much has come of it. For a while now I’ve been trying to write five hundred words each day, which sometimes is fiction and sometimes essays which end up as blog posts, either here or on mikelynch.org, but which is mostly a diary.

There have been other times when I’ve been going through troubles that I’ve written regularly. After a spell of frantic and introspective journal-keeping after getting divorced in 2003, I went off it, because it didn’t seem to help with my depression and in some ways made it worse. I felt like I was just rolling around in my problems and not doing anything about them. The ritual of putting pen to paper was comforting, but the actual writing wasn’t amounting to anything, and it meant that the most creative activity which I did was also concentrating on all the reasons why I was sad. I’ve still got an envelope somewhere containing a thick wad of foolscap which I sealed away when I decided to stop keeping that journal. I haven’t ever been tempted to open it.

My daily writing now has felt more productive, even if it’s not that much more worth reading. Every now I’ll go back over it — the fact that I’m doing it on a laptop rather than a notepad makes this easier — and it’s sometimes embarrassing to see me write down the same insight, something I’ve figured out in therapy or while running that struck me as particularly helpful or wise, months apart, often using almost the same words, with no self-awareness that I’d already been over that ground. Maybe the lesson here is that keeping a diary is more useful if one re-reads it, so that things don’t get lost.

There’s another reason for this kind of delayed stutter, and that’s fear. Mostly, the repetitions I’m thinking of are writing about, or writing around, something which I need to tell someone or do with someone, and which I’m afraid of. Writing about it is, in a way, a delaying tactic. Instead of getting up the courage to have a difficult conversation, I can write five hundred words about it. It is a useful way to put my thoughts in order, but it’s also a sop: I get the satisfaction of having done something, and ticked off a daily self-care task, without the danger of actually doing the thing which I’m afraid of doing.

I do, eventually, mostly, get around to doing these things, and I shouldn’t be hard on myself about the slow and repetitive nature of the process. There’s far more repetition in my head, where I worry about these things and have imaginary versions of the conversations which I’m delaying. By turning them into something that’s a little more concrete — even if it’s the evanescent form of a text file on a laptop — I make them more real, something I’m less likely, even if only marginally, to forget about or put off.

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City2Surf

This is the third time I’ve run in the City2Surf. I’ve been running regularly for about seven years and you’d think I’d be getting used to it, but every time I finish the 14k from Hyde Park to Bondi I can’t quite believe that I did it.

Last year I finished in 88m, which is just under the 90m qualifying time for a green bib. I hadn’t really thought much about that until I got to the bib collection at Darling Harbour on Saturday and saw how small the green queues were compared to the blue, yellow and orange ones. There were thousands of us, but a small fraction of the total. I don’t think I’ve ever qualified for any kind of race before: it made me feel a bit like I was a part of an elite, but mostly that I was among the very slowest part of that elite.

It also meant that I had to get up earlier than usual.

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The green runners start right after the wheelchair athletes and the frankly implausible reds, who have demonstrated the ability to run the course in under an hour. Starting early is great because there’s a lot less time standing around freezing on College St while FM radio presenters yell at you over loudspeakers. There’s still a bit of that, as you can see.

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I wasn’t expecting too much this year as my form’s been a bit off. One of the things which keeps me running is that it’s good for my mood, but that cuts both ways. When my mood’s poor or I’m stressed, which has been the case for a lot of this year, my pace goes down. But running with the green pack was really good. In previous years I’ve spent a lot of time dodging people who’ve slowed down to a walk, which is a bit stressful, but very few green runners did that before Heartbreak Hill. So the first six Ks seemed to fly.

I needed to take a break twice up the Hill: my main City2Surf aspiration is to make it all the way up to Vaucluse without needing to do this. Coming around the hairpin bend at the top, we met an icy southerly which we’d been sheltered from thus far: it made the last stretch a bit more of a struggle than usual. One thing that also seems to be part of the green pack was getting barracked by fellow runners: when I broke into a walk in the final stretch a bloke behind me yelled, in a not unfriendly tone, “COME ON! YOU CAN DO IT!”

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My other C2S aspiration is to have a decent expression on my face when I take a finish-line selfie.

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Even though I wasn’t expecting to, I improved my time to 87m, so I’ll get to keep my green status till 2020 (qualification lasts for two years, for some reason). The other great thing about it is that Bondi wasn’t anywhere near as crowded when I got there, so I could get a yoghurt and a coffee and a beer without too much hassle, and take in some accidental glitch art from this video screen showing the wheelchair racer’s presentation.

Various compulsions

I’ve taken Twitter breaks before, from a week to a month in length, because it messes with my head: it’s like I have a little cloud of arguments and jokes following me around, and I’m always distracted, either by anger or by the ever-present urge to turn a situation or a stray thought into a sentence which can get me some dopamine. My current break is the longest I’ve had, and I did it for a slightly different reason.

Once I’ve started checking Twitter in a given twenty-four hour period, I can’t let go of it. I’ll keep checking it at short intervals, unless interrupted by something which forces me to focus my attention elsewhere, like driving or eating. This year, my compulsive urge to check it became dramatically worse, and I tried to stay off it until after 5pm. This seemed to be going OK, until I noticed that every afternoon at 4:30 or so I’d get a massive knot in my stomach. It was the first time I’d ever had Twitter make me anxious before I’d even read it, so I decided to give it a rest for a while, and then the while turned into a couple of months.

I still miss it and one of the things on my to-do list is to prune my follow list back to under a hundred people, or maybe just start a new account and follow back anyone who cares enough to follow me, but neither of these things is very high up my to-do list. Which is annoying: over the years Twitter has provided me with a form of social connection which has been really important to me, and I’m not very good at making connections in more traditional ways, so it’s left me feeling a bit isolated.

What’s also annoying is that the compulsiveness itself hasn’t gone away, it seems to have displaced itself into other behaviours which honestly aren’t much better than Twitter:

Hatereading rationalist blogs. I’ve been unhealthily fascinated with places like LessWrong since I first found out about them, and a few months ago I actually added Slate Star Codex to my RSS reader. These people write so much that following what’s going on at all requires way more effort than it would be worth even if they were any good. But they’re not. I still want someone to do a “Serial” style podcast about a group of American psychiatric outpatients who slowly discover that their doctor is running an incredibly earnest and verbose blog in which he tries to reverse-engineer every form of human activity in order to solve the world and prevent a harmful AI from eating our brains.

Compulsively checking the output of my Twitter bots. Yes, I know that this is a bit sad, but I’m sure I can’t be the only botteur who does it.

Trying to keep up with the Trump megathreads on Metafilter, which is like trying to keep up with a screaming mob. Even if you agree with them, it’s not advisable.

Checking Mastodon. This seems healthier than Twitter, or, at least, it doesn’t wind me up as much. But it’s less worthwhile as a source of social connection. It might improve: I remember a while in 2009 or so when Twitter seemed a bit pointless, and then for some reason, some threshold in my corner of the social graph was passed and it seemed to take off. Mastodon, or my slice of it, has better politics but too many people complaining about how software and computers are terrible and we should burn them down and start again.

Reading Wikipedia articles. I was one of those kids who read an entire encyclopaedia (the World Book) just because it was comforting and full of facts, although I got an aversion to several letters because their volumes contained articles which were not comforting at all: D for Disease, H for Heart (disease). Looking up obscure topics in astrophysics or biology and reading through thousands of words of the output of the internet’s Bouvards and Pécuchets is not something of which I’m proud, but it’s better, again, than reading Scott Alexander.

I’ve started using a site blocker to keep me off the worst of these places altogether and restrict my access to the less bad ones. I’m hoping to get some compulsive behaviours going which are constructive, like posting things here, and drawing again, and writing more stories.

Blogging again

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S L I T S C A N S P A C E

I’m going to be posting regularly here again, as a replacement for Twitter. I still miss it but  can’t see myself going back there anytime soon. I’m still persisting with Mastodon but it’s very much its own world.

Hush! Caution! Echoland!

It’s a cliché to speak of Ulysses as an endpoint, the culmination of the nineteenth century novel, finally bled dry of plot and incident and to a certain extent character (we only feel that we know Stephen and Bloom so well because we spend so much time with them) and erupting into a monstrous growth of period detail and stylistic parody. It’s not the last station on the line, but at least, unlike with Finnegans Wake, one can still pretend it’s something like a readable work of fiction.

But Ulysses was my gateway into mainstream literature: before that, excepting what I was forced to read for educational purposes, I’d only read science fiction and fantasy. Literature was too boring, just a bunch of normal people doing grown up stuff. Ulysses was different: the first handful of chapters were pretty slow and contained a great deal of matter relating to Thomas Aquinas which I let slide by in peaceful incomprehension. But once the newspaper headlines started in the seventh chapter it started to get fun, if not easier to understand.

So for me, it’s always felt like a starting point, not a conclusion. It’s not exactly a friendly introduction to the Western canon, but there’s a lot of writers I first heard of, or was exposed to parodies of, under its influence. And its attitude of “hey, keep up with this if you can”, the sense you get of being complicit with someone taking everything they knew about every book they’d ever read for a dance, is exhilarating.

This post started out as another very short science fiction story, which is what I usually post here on Bloomsday, but it felt like it was getting into territory I’ve covered too often: a sort of dystopian scenario where after the Singularity, or some parody thereof, the AIs really do reconstruct Dublin from Ulysses, and put a bunch of human consciousnesses in it, and it’s terrible, like being trapped in a Bloomsday costume party for all eternity. I gave it up because, for one thing, I was unconsciously plagiarising part of a short story by Ian Watson from the 80s called, I think, “The Bloomsday Revolutions”. (I thought of Ian Watson for the first time in years the other day. He’s a good writer, look him up if you get the chance.)

The other reason I stopped was that I’m weary of science fiction being about computers and AI. I think that the real event underlying the Singularity is the collapse of the sf imagination into the computational. Too many of my own attempts to write longer pieces of fiction have gotten stuck or faltered for the same reasons.

I was remembering Jorn Barger, the guy who coined the word ‘blog’ and had a kind of internet celebrity which then dissolved into anti-Semitism and silence. Barger was an autodidact Joyce fan and had a site called “IQ Infinity”, the central thesis of which was that in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce had solved AI, that through sheer brainpower he’d comprehended how the human mind worked. I don’t remember, if I ever really understood, exactly in what sense Barger thought that the works themselves constituted artificial intelligence: could one create the personality of “Leopold Bloom” from the text if it were somehow transformed into software? As another Joyce fanboy I can understand Barger’s reverent awe — without sharing it to that extent. And looked at dispassionately, it’s a ridiculous and self-infatuated idea: if only everyone else loved my favourite author as much as I do, they’d understand how consciousness works, too.

I was also thinking of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project, the origin of the term ‘hypertext’: I’d known about it for decades, and based on what I’d read of his writing at various times, I thought of him as a crank, embittered by the success of the web. Xanadu proposes a much more complex way of linking and embedding documents within one another, with links that go both ways, and an elaborate system of building a top-level document from a variety of sources. Having come across this summary by a recent participant made me sense, in an obscure way, the allure of this vision of a global network of interpenetrating words. But in another way, it feels nightmarish.

In my mind, Xanadu’s “transclusion” is a codified and rigid version of the sort of association of ideas which the reading mind does in a flexible way all by itself. All writing depends on this, but it’s essential to a text like Ulysses, and even more so Finnegans Wake. Rather than narrating, “Stephen thought about Aquinas’ doctrines of sense perception as he walked along Sandymount”, Joyce interpolates “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so on, all those weird terms I didn’t understand the first time, leaving it to the reader to either follow the echoes, if they are aware of the reference, or, if not, to fold the unusual texts into their own memory, to be echoed later or in other texts.

I love this process: to some extent, what I’ve just described is what being literate means to me. But I enjoy doing it with my own mind, or letting my own mind do it for me, and the thought of it being made explicit, with coloured markers joining the texts in different columns, makes me queasy, as do the very few working xanalogical demos.

I should add that sometimes just reading Joyce gives me the same feeling of vertigo. There’s a central image, or nightmare, behind these different incarnations, a cousin of Borges’ total library, the idea of mind as a sort of infinite glossary. It makes sense that my imagination, in trying to come up with a response to Ulysses as Bloomsday comes around each year, would return to the machines with which I work, and the fantasy that one day they’ll be able to read our favourite books so well that they’ll bring them to life.

I often get the same feeling reading blogs from the rationalist and AI risk communities. I suspect that these are not so much a school of philosophy as a literary genre, in which people with a very particular form of intelligence — discursive, articulate, fond of numerical arguments, insistent that any discipline can either be reduced to economics or physics, or is empty or misleading — imagine, with the same kind of self-infatuation, that magnified forms of this form of intelligence will either save or wreck the world. Earlier this year, I got so compulsive about reading this kind of thing that I had to use a site-blocking extension to stop myself.

I console myself with the idea that Joyce, had he lived in our era, would have been very bad (one imagines with glee his towering contempt and exasperation) at using computers.

Too Like The Lightning

Ada Palmer, 2016, Tor

I have been looking forward to this ever since I heard that it was a medium-future science fiction novel written in the style of an eighteenth century conte philosophique, two of my favourite literary forms. (Medium-future as in a couple of centuries from now, between near-future, which is decades away, and far-future, which is your Olaf Stapledon or Stephan Baxter stuff when humans have evolved into moonbats or the universe is running down and the sun’s turned into a cannonball.) It’s such an ambitious book — the narrator is describing a twenty-sixth century world which is several technological marvels and a world political revolution distant from our own, but is doing so from another imagined future perspective, after it’s all changed again. This doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to, particularly in the book’s treatment of gender: I felt like Terra Ignota’s conventions were not well-established enough before the narrator starts poking holes in them. But I forgave this for the fact that it’s a future history which is about radical social change. (Altered Carbon, which I was looking forward to after seeing people rave about it on Twitter, is a depressing example of how lame most sf is: the hero wakes up after 250 years and nothing seems to have changed except that the rich are meaner. Everything’s still a shopworn cyberpunk dystopia which, let’s be completely honest, was always just Chinatown as seen by a scared white kid.)

The other thing to point out is that the book comes with an in-universe title page, rather lovingly done in imitation of the sorts of eighteenth century books it’s emulating, complete with content warnings from the relevant organisations. Most of the text on this page is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book and got your head around the very different political structure of its future world, but the content warnings themselves are straightforward, accurate, and should be taken very seriously. It’s an easy book to spoil, and I don’t want to do that, except to warn you that there aren’t many novels where I’ve read certain pages and then had to make a conscious decision whether I wanted to keep reading it in the morning.

I’m glad that I did. Palmer has created something quite unique and exciting, which reminds me of a bunch of authors I never thought to see yoked together. She acknowledges her debts to Asimov and Bester with a couple of sly references, and the portrayal of an utopian society about to unearth social forms which it has buried or obscured reminded me of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, in content if not in style. And, most unexpectedly, the baroque characterisation made me think of R A Lafferty, who is not an author I ever expected to compare to anyone.

You Should Come With Me Now

M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press

The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.

One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.

One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.

Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)

There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.

The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”