Interconnected

Augustus and Caesarion

I'd like to read a story about these two.

Cleopatra, from an ancient civilisation and a family that rules an even more ancient civilisation, in 250 years the first to really put her roots down and speak the language.

Caesar, bringing about the end of the republic, the expansionist warmonger of the upstart empire.

They fall in love. Love and politics. She has a son with him to cement the throne. For Caesar this is possibly his only son.

Caesar is assassinated in the death spasm of old Rome. Cleopatra falls in love with his right hand man.

Caesar's adopted son - after a second war that engulfs the Mediterranean, the first being Caesar's civil war - succeeds him: Augustus.

Cleopatra's son, Caesarion, succeeds her.

Then the upstart empire takes the most ancient one, and Augustus kills Caesarian.

Did they meet? Caesarion escaped for a time and was lured back. Did they have a final conversation? That must have been something.

Two sons, two brothers. One by blood, one anointed; one with history on his side, the other with the future. Augustus was the founder of the Roman Empire, which would last 400 years.

Another story says that Caesarion escaped.

Filtered for some nice words

1.

From this article about how computers play chess,

The values [of moves] are commonly measured in units of 0.01 called centipawns -- figuratively hundredths of a pawn.

Centipawns!

See also: The micromort which is unit of risk measuring a one-in-a-million probability of death. For example, simply living in England and Wales exposes you to 24 micromorts daily; flying 12,000 miles adds one more.

2.

Look, it's awkward to mention anything by Ezra Pound -- and by "awkward" I mean, wasn't he a fascist and wildly antisemitic? Not the kind of ideas I want near me.

Anyway, he wrote Revolt Against the Crepuscular Spirit in Modern Poetry which is... well, full of feeling.

I bid thee grapple chaos and beget

Some new titanic spawn to pile the hills and stir

This earth again.

See also Ozmandius by Shelley which I hadn't realised was so short, just a sonnet, but picture-packed to the rafters.

3.

The fall of Jersey: how a tax haven goes bust, an article which includes this gorgeous phrase:

45 square miles of self-governing ambiguity entirely surrounded by water.

The ridiculous physics of the free market.

4.

So there are rumours that gravity waves have been detected.

But waves in what? Waves in the fabric of spacetime itself, or in physics words: it's perturbations to the Metric (a description of the curvature of spacetime), where zero-amplitude corresponds to Minkowski space.

From the linked paper,

There are also a number of “exotic” effects that gravitational waves can experience ... scattering by the background curvature, the existence of tails of the waves that interact with the waves themselves, parametric amplification by the background curvature, nonlinear coupling of the waves with themselves (creation of geons, that is, bundles of gravitational waves held together by their own self-generated curvature) and even formation of singularities by colliding waves

You know that feeling where you're listening to choral music in Latin, or Buddhist chanting, and you don't know the words but the sound of them is enough? Yeah. Perturbations to the Metric.

Vincent van Gogh on the stars

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh Arles, c. 9 July 1888:

That brings up again the eternal question: is life completely visible to us, or isn't it rather that this side of death we see one hemisphere only?

And:

For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it. But to look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages. Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this: that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train.

So it doesn't seem impossible to me that cholera, gravel, pleurisy & cancer are the means of celestial locomotion, just as steam-boats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

Which, to me, puts his Starry Night on a bigger canvas than it had before.

Filtered for background

1.

Time-lapse of scenery in Red Dead Redemption.

Western video game. Keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel.

2.

Homo erectus made world's oldest doodle 500,000 years ago.

Art by non-humans would make me feel we had more company in the universe. I'm not quite sure this counts, but it's close.

3.

The art of viewing moss.

Microscopic rainforests.

4.

The colour of e-ink... that grey screen that goes back to the first Amazon Kindle.

Or these new London bus stops using e-paper, the same.

Web pages used to always have a grey background -- inherited from the grey used by Mosaic in 1993.

The other day I stepped out of the tube and the sky was this medium grey -- not matte, not dark, not bright, not quite pearlescent, just... there. The colour of an e-ink screen before the words arrive.

See also, blue.

Filtered for historical facts

1.

The beautiful Crab Nebula... 6,500 light years away, 10 light years across. In the nebula's very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town.

The supernova that caused the nebula was visible from Earth in 1054 AD. There's a rock carving of it, made at the time, in a canyon in New Mexico.

See also: An eclipse mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey has been precisely dated. We now know that Odysseus returned home, 10 years after the sacking of Troy, on April 16, 1178 B.C., close to noon local time.

2.

Archimedes was a weapons inventor who lived in Sicily, a battleground between Rome and Carthage in the Punic Wars. To protect his city, he invented heat rays and a giant hook called the Claw of Archimedes that was used to lift the enemy ships out of the sea before dropping them to their doom.

He was killed by a Roman soldier at the end of the Siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War.

The Second Punic War is the one that started with Hannibal (a Carthaginian commander) crossing the Alps to invade Rome, spending 15 years traipsing round Italy with his army, generally causing havoc.

Something about connecting the dots between these historical characters makes them more alive for me.

See also: John Milton (author of the poem Paradise Lost) visited Galileo in Florence in 1638.

3.

We know who invented paper.

Cai Lun: In A.D. 105, Cai invented the composition for paper along with the papermaking process.

In ancient times writings and inscriptions were generally made on tablets of bamboo or on pieces of silk called chih. But silk being costly and bamboo heavy, they were not convenient to use. Tshai Lun [Cai Lun] then initiated the idea of making paper from the bark of trees, remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and fishing nets. He submitted the process to the emperor in the first year of Yuan-Hsing [+105] and received praise for his ability. From this time, paper has been in use everywhere and is universally called 'the paper of Marquis Tshai'.

4.

How Little Richard found God:

At the height of his fame, on tour in Australia in October 1957, he saw a big ball of fire in the sky above the stadium. ... The message, to Little Richard, was clear. He had to leave show business ... He enrolled at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study to become a minister.

And:

What Little Richard saw overhead in Australia was in fact Sputnik, the Russian satellite traveling 18,000 miles an hour in the night sky.

See also...

In 1899, in Colorado, Nikola Tesla heard a signal from Mars. He wrote in 1921:

the signals consisted in a regular repetition of numbers, and subsequent study convinced me that they must have emanated from Mars

However:

Marconi was transmitting messages hundred of miles across Europe and the English Channel during the summer of 1899 and was using as a signal the Morse-code letter S (dot-dot-dot), which precisely corresponds to the three beats Tesla said he intercepted

I prefer to believe that Tesla heard Mars, and that Little Richard saw God.

Favourite books, 2015

Favourite books read this year:

New Things is so undramatic -- the story of a wife at home, and a husband who is a Christian missionary taking the word to people who are hard to understand. Communication and distance runs through this book: Between the couple; between the missionary and his community; between what's really happening and the reader.

It's a delicate book. Half-told shadows of truths, understated language that circumnavigates huge black holes of feelings where light doesn't go.

I found out after reading it that Michel Faber intends this to be his final novel -- he wrote it while his wife was dying. Heartbreaking. You can tell.

Wild Life is by Molly Gloss who wrote The Dazzle of the Day, a novel about a village of Quakers who travel to another star system on a generation ship. They treat repairing the solar sails like farming the fields. And it talks about something that can't be talked about from the inside: Silence.

So Wild Life isn't sci-fi, but - like Strange New Things (did I mention the Christian missionary visits aliens on another planet?) - it's speculative fiction: A woman gets lost in the woods, I don't want to say much more than that.

Except this. There's a memorable period of silence in the woods. For me it highlights what happens in silence... you become detached from what words do. Words, somehow, add our expected reality onto our perceptions. Silence, by removing words, simultaneously creates dissociation - a dreamlike state - but also brings you closer to reality itself, requires you to become embedded.

The beginning, middle, and end of the silence is sensitively and insightfully told.

Archdruid is nonfiction. It's John McPhee's portrait of David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, told in three parts, each part a fight with another individual, an opponent, over an environmental issue: Mining, property development, the damming of rivers.

The third part grabbed me especially -- David Brower rafts down the Colorado River with Floyd Dominy, through sites where Dominy has won and Brower has lost. McPhee is there too, a participant observer. This isn't journalism, it's telling a story through describing what happens between the three of them.

It strikes me that what these books by Faber, Gloss and McPhee have in common is they all describe character enormously well.

Brower is speaking on behalf of wilderness. Rocks, trees, these things are silent, at least in our human conversations. So we need people to speak for them. Maybe. It's a fuzzy domain. On the one hand, that which doesn't speak sometimes needs a voice, so perhaps we need speakers who will hold its viewpoint inside. Essential if the rest of us aren't going to destroy it by trampling. But the risk is that when you speak for a thing that holds its own counsel, you undermine its subjectivity and its sovereignty -- its right to be understood on its own terms.

McPhee describes the land in words that speak to me: The Utah canyonland had been severed halfway up by a blue geometric plane, creating a waterscape of interrupted shapes. He is also the author of Annals of the Former World.

What happens between people:

I have been having my mind slowly transformed by Group Psychotherapy by Foulkes and Anthony. I've had a long-standing interest in small group dynamics that I'm really beginning to indulge this year, and along with Wilfred Bion's Experiences in Groups, this is the best eye-opener I've found.

Groups (social interactions, company) are the water in which we swim. Having common group phenomena pointed out, or to be shown details of a group's evolution and its impact on individual behaviour, makes me feel like I'm finally seeing something that was in-front of me all along.

This is also the book that introduced me to the role of the "participant observer"... in these psychoanalytic situations, the person who attempts to speak for the group, but is also part of it. Tricky. Enlightening.

When you can see something, well, that lets you ask questions like, why couldn't this be otherwise? And, what about the groups I haven't looked at yet, the ones with trees and rocks and other non-humans?

Group Psychotherapy includes an analysis of the three person closed group in No Exit, the play by Jean Paul Sartre in which he says Hell is other people. I hadn't clicked what a tight description of the group this is. Now seeing how real it is, there's more there for me to read.

I guess that's what brings together all of my favourites this year. There's a reality to the characters, and their interactions, and their behaviours and evolution, and their situations; and so they tell me more - by speaking and by not speaking - and they live longer in my imagination.

@5point9billion news

Some updates for that space+birthdays Twitter bot I launched a couple weeks ago...

  • The bot now picks up the timezone of the user -- notifications are sent out at 12 noon local time.
  • There's a website! I've made Electron Farm as the home for my various Twitter bots. Use 5point9billion's homepage to set your birthday without tweeting it publicly, and also see which stars you've already reached.

The bot just passed 300 active users, which is not bad!

And here's a pretty visualisation of all bright star systems closer than 100 light years. It was a bit quick+dirty to make, but a neat way to get to learn about drawing 3D graphics. I like the way it looks, so I'm thinking about how to use these kind of animations for the bot.

Ulysses and other apps for writing

A quick plug for the Mac app Ulysses which has totally upended my writing workflow in the last few months. Brilliant -- the first tool I've found that fits the way I work.

My previous writing workflow in a nutshell:

  • I capture super-quick notes in Simplenote on my phone, or nvALT 2 (an updated version of Notational Velocity) on my laptop. They're synced together. Perfect for ideas, recipes, records of when I last called the electricity company to give a meter reading, etc. These apps are optimised for search... type a word or two, and all matching notes instantly appear. Over the past two decades I've seen the benefits of serendipitously running across my own forgotten scribbles, these apps are ideal for that.
  • For longer documents, I move to Textmate which really is a text editor for writing code, and it's dated too. I use a plugin I wrote in 2007 called Plain Text Wiki. This lets me write longer, structured documents of multiple linked pages, all as plain text. Seems like a bunch of trouble to go to. But I'm a purist: Since losing a bunch of data in the 1990s, I'm distrustful of other people's file formats. Plain text is the way to go, no Word docs. I want formats that I can extract words from, even when I'm down at the level of reading bytes retrieved from broken hard drive platters. It's happened. That was the first time. The second time a drive failed on me, I ran the server with the drive sitting on an ice tray direct from the freezer -- any warmer and it would seize. I do backups now.

This blog uses Markdown for formatting posts, and I wrote my own blog engine. The engine has changed multiple times, but the data - my posts - remain the same. For quick presentations I use Deckset which lets me make + present great looking slides fast, also using Markdown from plain text files.

So I'm pretty choosey, and my flow is pretty well established.

Every so often, I try a more grownup app for writing. Textmate is ok but it's made for coding. And more importantly, I can't get to the docs I'm working on from my iPad or my phone.

But the Mac apps I've found... they're all about focus. Full screen writing. Dark backgrounds. I don't focus when I write, I'm all over the place. I like to have multiple documents on the go, and often multiple projects.

Enter Ulysses.

Ulysses is plain-text first, with Markdown for formatting. There's a learning curve, and then it's simple: All my text sits in a single library that I've organised into projects. Within each project, there are notes both short and long. There's a prominent search field, and when I look at the Ulysses library on disk, I can find the text files.

I've added my blog as an "external folder" -- to publish, I drag a file from my main library onto it, and sync.

But importantly, it just feels right. I open it and continue writing. I don't have to think about what to call this file and where to save it, but equally I don't need to be concerned about mixing up my work projects and my personal projects.

What's convinced me to make this a permanent part of my workflow is that I'm on the Ulysses for iOS beta and it's great. The library syncs automatically. Being able to access my longer docs while I'm on the bus (which, it turns out, is where I do most of my thinking) and add notes directly to those projects... fantastic. Drafting blog posts while I'm on the tube, in a familiar text editor? So good.

So yeah -- an enthusiastic plug for Ulysses. Thanks!

All of that said: I don't think I would have looked outside my current workflow except that I sat down with Dinah Sanders and she generously showed me how she uses Scrivener, which is the go-to app for authors of proper books.

While I'm not using Scrivener (Ulysses is similar and I'm too committed to my text files...), Dinah opened my eyes to using process and organisation as part of writing. Currently I'm constrained by my own working memory. Every time I try to write a single piece of more than a couple thousand words - fiction or non-fiction - I get in the swamp. This feels like it's helping.

Next

I'm on the lookout for new gigs. 2015 has been a good and exploratory year -- the highlights: I've mentored startups as Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars and continue to spend quality time with many especially in the pre-series A and hardware spaces, including being an advisor at Tech Will Save Us and making a small investment in Unmade. I've developed Internet of Things policy with the government; built a regular hardware-focused London meet-up; taught design students and explored small group dynamics; got a speaking agent (!) and done talks about the Internet of Things and business models; made a return to coding and built Twitter bots. I still work closely with Samsung on corporate innovation, and have a few more personal projects bubbling away...

2016?

I want to build on 2015 with new gigs, drop me a line if you'd like to chat. I'm open to longer engagements... full or part-time for 3-6 months, that kind of thing. Email is matt@interconnected.org.

New interview

John Pavlus interviewed me about code... how I got into it, what I think it does to and for society, etc. The result is this article, For Designers, Learning To Code Isn't A Yes-No Question featured at Fast Company Design.

Included! My early spiritual experience with transistors. Ted Nelson's amazingly prescient observation that Whatever it may do in the real world, to the computer program, it's just another device and the dehumanising effect technology can have. The steamroller approach of the coding mindset on the world's problems... and it's power too.

I'm delighted with this. For some reason, conversations with John always lead to interesting places - places I don't think either of us (well, me definitely) would have reached without talking together - and it's neat to have some of those endpoints written down.

Go read!