Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue eight of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.
Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…
Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online
This week I read Memexes, Mountain Lakes, and the Serendipity of Old Ideas by Matt Webb, and then got a bit over-excited.
Webb is particularly interested not just in people taking notes, but how they go on to use those notes. He goes on to highlight a few examples. First up, Cory Doctorow. In 20 Years a Blogger, Doctorow notes:
“My composition is greatly aided both 20 years’ worth of mnemonic slurry of semi-remembered posts and the ability to search memex.craphound.com (the site where I’ve mirrored all my Boing Boing posts) easily.
A huge, searchable database of decades of thoughts really simplifies the process of synthesis.”
At this point, dear reader, I’m sat here thinking – a searchable database of thoughts! Why the hell don’t I have one of those?
Webb then goes on to talk about author Robin Sloan’s process. Unlike Doctorow, Sloan writes notes by hand, then transfers these notes from his handwritten notebooks to his searchable notes app, nvALT. Already I’m feeling jealous that he’s built this thing, but he then goes one better. He’s created a system so random notes appear every time he opens a browser tab:
“I like the idea of being presented and re-presented with my notations of things that were interesting to me at some point, but that in many cases I had forgotten about. The effect of surprise creates interesting and productive new connections in my brain.
In order to do this, I’ve put some of my programming skills to work to engineer a kind of Rube Goldberg-y system: as I mentioned previously, I export my notes from nvALT into Simplenote, and just basically use that as a back-end database. That export then gets loaded into a server that I’ve set up to feed me a random note every time I open a blank browser tab.”
Now I’m sat here thinking I want a searchable database of thoughts, and a thinger that loads one at random every time I open a new browser tab… Oh, and a goose that lays gold eggs for easter.
I am Veruca Salt’s gross sense of entitlement and unbounded greed.
Back to Webb – inspired by both Doctorow and Sloan, he too has started thinking about how he might join the dots – here’s what he’s come up with:
“So here’s a start. This blog now has an On This Day page, which lists posts made on this day since 2007 (it goes back a week too). It’s a bit spartan, and I’m not sure yet how to make best use of it…
…BUT, right now I can see
a) Filtered for TIL (2015) which has everything from control panels to poetic translations for words about mental health.
b) An idea from 2011 about making exoskeletons for hamsters.
c) A selection of quotes about masks from Impro by Keith Johnstone (2008) which is an amazing book about improvisation.
And all of those are suddenly new to me again, and spark new thoughts. Naturally there’s an On This Day web feed too so these posts appear in my newsreader each morning. Some personal serendipity to start the day.”
Dear reader, I’m really excited about the idea of doing something similar. Something that might help me make sense of, and make something useful out of the various old notebooks, random documents, lists, and other stuff I’ve collected over the years. I could quite literally start the every single day with a little manufactured serendipity – what a lovely thought, huh?
Somewhat related, I also came across this piece about Digitising Commonplace Books which includes some options which I feel like might be worth me exploring.
I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet, but if you’ve got a bright idea, suggestion, or recommendation please let me know 🙂
Moar serendipitous finds:
10 Cool Things We Learned About Pluto – Pluto has a “heart” and it drives activity on the planet…
The Many Lives of Steven Yeun by Jay Caspian Kang:
“I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
This poem is everything:
How can we talk about privilege without causing people to react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon?
The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi, plus his follow ups posts here and here are great. They date back to 2012, and I’d kind of forgotten about them, but rediscovered them this week:
“Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time.
Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is. This means that the default behaviours for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your levelling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for.
The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.”
Megan Fritts on Pattern Recognition:
“In the blue light of these forums, anxious individuals are offered the assurance that the senseless violence and dangers of modern life—from mass shooters and pedophiles to the coronavirus—are not so senseless after all.
Once you see the pattern you can protect yourself from the threat.
And despite the dire nature of the narratives, the explanations come as a relief. The problem is, of course, that they aren’t true.”
In The Phantom Pattern Problem, the economist Gary Smith and data scientist Jay Cordes write:
“The survival and reproductive payoffs from pattern recognition gave humans an evolutionary advantage over other animals… Indeed, it has been argued that the cognitive superiority of humans over all other animals is due mostly to our evolutionary development of superior pattern processing.”
Fritts goes on to note:
“Finding “phantom patterns” is to be expected given ordinary human fallibility and the difficulty of enduring unexplainable suffering. We long for the answers these patterns seem to hint at. But living in a society that incentivizes manipulating this instinct into its darkest possible form requires an incredibly discerning response. I am not quite sure I know what this response should be.
Maybe it requires training our eye for patterns toward the understanding of human life and human good, preventing it from fixating on perceived dangers to ourselves or looking for who to blame. The challenge is to remain precisely and virtuously humane. Too little vigilance and we become “human, all too human”—irrational and impulse-driven to the point of delusion.
But neither should we defensively make our thinking so sterile that, as we watch the stars, we miss Orion.”
I cannot express quite how much I wish I owned this delightful geode:
And finally, another absolute beaut of a mashup from DECO:
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
I’ll kick off with my recommendation of the fortnight – Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes. This book is an examination of the origin stories of some of the most famous women in mythology – including Pandora, Helen, Medusa, Jocasta, Penelope and Medea. Haynes highlights:
“Every telling of a myth is as valid as any other, of course, but women are lifted out of the equation with a monotonous frequency.”
This book aims to redress the balance, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that there were quite so many versions of these myths (although of course, that makes sense – these are stories which have been passed down orally; and as a result, told, and retold, and retold over time). And of course, these retellings actually reveal more about us than perhaps we’d like to acknowledge:
“Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us. Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth.”
I was particularly interested in Medusa’s origin story. Medusa was not always a monster; in some versions of the myth: she’s a woman who was raped and then punished for it with snakish hair (incidentally, in myths women are frequently punished for being raped). And yet, somehow, dear reader, Medusa’s origin story is a key element which has been omitted, and we are so accustomed to seeing the image of a victorious Perseus holding Medusa’s head aloft we fail to consider her at all; all we see is our hero Perseus with his trophy.
Next I read Being a Beast by Charles Foster. Foster, (a repentant country sportsman) seeks to live as a badger, an otter, a fox, a stag, and a swift, in order to better understand their lives and ours.
This isn’t a book that I’d ordinarily pick up, however, you might remember that in issue 5 of this newsletter, I shared a collection of essays called I Thought About That a Lot. The collection included an essay about Foxes, which was inspired by the chapter about foxes in Being a Beast, and included the following quote from Foster:
“The foxes showed me a London that was old and deep enough to live in and be kind about. They negotiated an uneasy peace between me and the East End, and indeed between me and other squalid, wretched, broken human places. It was a great gift.”
I duly popped the book on to my reading list, only to have it land on my doormat a few days later (I have a monthly Libreria subscription, and they send me a surprise book every month), so I can only conclude that the universe was telling me that I was meant to read this book.
So how was it?
It is delightfully odd. Foster lives in a sett, swam as an otter, and foraged in bins as a city fox (amongst other things) on his quest to better understand these animals. He eats worms (and provides detailed tasting notes on them), in addition to various other things you probably wouldn’t ordinarily eat as a human.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found the chapter on foxes is the most compelling, but that might just be because I’m a Londoner 🙂
Foster’s writing is beautiful, and he’s flippant and deadly serious in turn. The fact that a person can’t truly become a beast is something that Foster acknowledges, and (I think) this saddens him. However I find his reasons for trying to become a beast very relatable indeed – in the epilogue, he notes:
“I worry that I’m entirely alone in the world: that otherness is wholly inaccessible. That when I think I’m in a relationship, I’m not. That all conversations are ultimately at cross purposes. That I neither understand nor am understood by any other.
There’s an exercise that might be able to help. If I can establish a real relationship with a non-human animal, there are grounds for optimism in relation to relationships with humans. If I can bond with a swift, I may well be able to bond with my children. True, I won’t be able to prove in a Euclidean sort of way that I’m really relating to the swift. But the human-animal relationship will be simpler than the human-human one, and won’t be obscured by so much tangled emotion. That means it might be easier to be reassured that a human-animal relationship is real. If it is, and it tastes like the same sort of thing as a human-human relationship, I’ll be able to love my children less doubtfully.”
I also read My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes. Set in Hollywood towards the end of the 1950s, the novella begins with a wonderful opening line:
“It was a party that had lasted too long…”
Hayes was a Hollywood screenwriter, and the nameless narrator of this book is in the same business: we don’t find out exactly what he’s working on, but we do know that it keeps him in funds, and that he is disgusted by it.
He rescues a woman from a drunken suicide attempt at a beach party, and an ill-fated relationship of sorts develops between them. Possibly because I’ve just read Boy Parts by Eliza Clark I was primed to notice Hayes’ comments on how beauty has a tendency to colour our perceptions of others:
“I found she struck a note of pathos, somehow; there was an air about her of a somewhat touching injury. It was possibly accentuated by the fact that she was pretty. I might not have been so sympathetic had she not been.”
It would be remiss of me to fail to highlight that in places, this novella has not aged well – it reflects the time it was written in, and as such, there are some uncomfortable moments. It’s also not a happy read, so if escapism is what you’re seeking, you’ll find none here. But it is exceptionally well-crafted writing – I get the sense that each and every sentence was carefully thought out, drafted, and re-drafted, over and over again. I suspect it’s a book I’ll return to.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I finally got a chance to watch It’s a Sin (Channel 4), Russell T. Davies’ miniseries set in London between 1981-1991. The series follows a young group of friends as they come of age against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis.
I grew up in London, and was ten years old when Section 28 banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in Britain’s schools, and councils were forbidden from stocking libraries with literature or films that contained gay or lesbian themes.
I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t realise that Section 28 was quite so far reaching.
In the schools I attended, I’m happy to say, that for the most part, the Conservative agenda of demonising homosexuality did not succeed. A handful of teachers did talk about it, and, until this week, I had no idea of the huge personal risks they were taking in doing so. I have so much love and respect for those teachers who did what they thought was right, regardless of the consequences. They helped me shape my own thinking in ways I’ve never truly acknowledged.
But back to the TV show. This is not an easy series to watch. The ways in which people who contracted AIDS were treated was nothing short of horrific, and the reason they were treated so badly was largely down to our society’s attitudes to homosexuality.
What’s worse of course, is that many who contracted the virus at the time, also believed this ugly rhetoric, as the character Jill notes in episode 5:
“The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, yes, this is right. I brought this on myself, it’s my fault, because the sex that I love is killing me.”
But as sad as this show is, there are also moments of pure joy here. We get to see these characters come of age, settle into their identities, and find their tribes – the character Richie says in the final episode:
“That’s what people will forget, that it was so much fun.”
I’d highly recommend that you watch it if you haven’t already.
Part IV: Things I’m doing
As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them.
Here’s what I’ve been up to:
I got to watch my play, The Sleep Stealers (online, from the comfort of my sofa). It’s been an absolutely amazing experience, and I’m so grateful to the actor and director, plus the whole cast and crew of Chickenshed for making this thing happen in very difficult circumstances. Thanks also to all of you who purchased tickets, you are all aces 🙂
What else? Dad’s now well and truly on the mend, and so I’m now back home in my own flat for the first time this year. Since I have been back I have mainly been doing cleaning, and failing to open my mail. Big love to Mum for managing to keep more than forty houseplants alive whilst I was gone – you’re a star.
Last time I said I’d complete at least one of the blog posts that’s been languishing in my drafts for longer than I’d care to admit. Dear reader, I have not done this. I’m sorry, I promise to get that done.
So what’s next?
I’ll be prepping a deck for Drink:// Digital in March (more details soon), in the meantime you can sign up here; plus I’ll definitely be publishing those blog posts.
Also, my lovely friend Jude sent me a painting that her son Dylan made for me, so I’m planning to get out the watercolours and send him a painting back. His picture is better than I could ever do, but I’m hoping that he’ll like my picture enough to put it on the fridge nevertheless.
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