Prehistoric computing

I’ve been meaning to get into the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh since it re-opened in the middle of the summer – it was closed for several years for a huge revamp and I’m glad to have it open to everyone again.  I avoided going in during the height of the tourist season, but last week on a day off I was at my dentist, which is only a few minutes walk from the museum, so I thought why not walk down and spend the afternoon getting familiar with an old friend again? As well as the sorts of things you might expect in a large, Victorian museum – Egyptian mummies, T-Rex skeleton etc – the NMS has a nice line in engineering, science and technology history, part of which includes some now historic ‘hi-tech’ (well, it was at the time), from circuit boards from the massive 50s and 60s computers that filled rooms to this, one of the first of what we’d recognise as a modern home computer, the Commodore PET, from the late 70s.

National Museum of Scotland 017

First computer I ever saw was one of these, my dad’s friend was an amateur meteorologist and had all sort of tech in his home, including a HAM radio and a printer that gave him direct feeds from a weather satellite (pretty nifty for late 70s). When he added this PET to his collection he had dad bring me round knowing I would find it interesting. Few years later I’d have my own home computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4a and I’ve had a computer of some sort since then (scary to think I have had a computer of some sort for 30 years now). A few years into high school I was given day release with some friends to go into a college in Glasgow one day a week to attend a computer training course, around 83 or maybe 84 – we were gobsmacked to see their computer labs was full of these PETs, because by then these were prehistoric, we expected BBC Model Bs! And their course was for people who had never used a computer, while we had all pretty much taught ourselves how to programme in BASIC several years before and so found what we thought would be an exciting ‘grown up’ course rather dull, but hey, got us a day out of school and into town… Anyway, I posted a shot of this Commodore behind glass in the NMS and shared it on the BoingBoing Flickr pool, noticed a few days later the views on it went crazy – 2, 500 views in about a day, which means a single pic was doing over twice my daily average for my whole Flickr… Turned out Xeni had reposted it on the main BoingBoing blog (one of my fave spots of online reading for many years, also shared the story of my doocing years back). Nice. Seems a lot of people had memories of this, ah, geek nostalgia…

Svankmajer & the Brothers Quay: wonderfully weird animation

Let’s start the week with some wonderful weirdness (start as you mean to go on, after all). John Cusack, guest blogging on BoingBoing, celebrate the work of the ‘Prague alchemist of film’, Jan Svankmajer, a truly remarkable, artist who has been one of my favourite animators for many years. From Cusack’s post: ” They call Svankmajer a surrealist, but his visions make as much sense to me as escalators or velcro. It’s hyperreality, and after all, it exists because he made it, so there it is —just like styrofoam and Fresca. Absurdism is the logical extension of the truth— or of current trends. Surrealism is true becouse it unearthers the subconscious, the stuff of fever dreams and fractured memory. It exists if one has the guts or madness to bring it to be… ( combine Surrealism and Absurdism and mix it with Dada, you get the Sex Pistols).”

(a clip from Svankmajer’s Alice in Wonderland)

I’ve been in love with the cinema of Svankmajer for a couple of decades – like Cusack I can’t remember where I first saw his work, probably a short piece somewhere, but it got under the skin and into the brain, seeping, trickling, dripping slowly into the subconcious where it lived and moved, casting strange shadows on the screen of the mind… I sought out his feature works in the arthouse cinemas and anywhere else I could find them – and as Cusack notes in his article, one of the wonderful things about today is that you can now find huge amounts of his work easily online through YouTube. When I first found Svankmajer’s works I had to look about arthouse cinemas for a screening or a retrospective at a film fest, now you can go and explore it whenever you want – god, sometimes I love the web… His work is fascinating; often mixing live action with various forms of animation; it can be funny, it can be creepy, it can be downright disturbing, combining the seemingly everyday then watching the unusual, the odd, the downright weird and surreal bleeding through that everyday, a world where logic can melt and flow like a Dali timepiece.

And since I’m on a Svankmajer kick, here’s a clip from Dimensions of Dialogue, which many of you have quite probably seen a bit of without knowing who it was by as it has been used frequently in a number of programmes over the years and spawned countless imitators:

As with all the most interesting artists in any medium I’ve found developing a fascination with one artist has lead me to others that I might never have come across otherwise, which is one of the remarkable qualities of any good art, be it animation, comics, books, music, film, you never take it in isolation, other works you’ve seen feed into your experience of the new work and the new work sparks ideas and images in your imagination that lead you on paths to other works and those lead you to more… Here’s the Brothers Quay (huge admirers of Svankmajer) with their famous Street of Crocodiles:

and part 2:

Considering how easy it is to find some of this work nowaday you owe it yourself to go exploring for more – especially if you love work by people like Tim Burton or Edward Gorey or Neil Gaiman, or you devoured the disturbingly weird old Doom Patrol strips. Go look; if you haven’t seen them before, you’ll thank me later, if you have seen them you’ll be delighted to find it is so simple to rewatch them now. And you’ll have strange dreams…

Sebastian’s Voodoo

This lovely animation, Sebastian’s Voodoo, by Joaquin Baldwin comes via Boing Boing and is in the running for a short film award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival; you can vote for it via YouTube and while you’re at it check out some other animations (and other works) from the National Film Board of Canada on YT:

Remix the underground

Boing Boing has been posting links for the last week or two about remixes of station names on local underground systems. The first couple to be done, like the London Underground and Toronto were pulled from their sites after their local transport authorities objected on grounds of violation of copyright, thus forever banishing the stereotype image we all had of the little jobsworthy twat who runs such services and couldn’t be more anally retentive if he had his butt cheeks held together with an industrial vice… Anyway, in true Boing Boing fashion they have been posting ever more versions from round the world (most transport authorities not being as bothered as London who you’d think would be too busy trying to think on ways of keeping their mayor out of trouble) including (hurrah) Glasgow!


Since Cory Doctorow posted the dismissal story on the excellent Boing Boing yesterday there has been a lot more discussion on this matter (Boing Boing also has an interesting related article on companies who have fired staff over blogs – a worrying trend). Quite a few more comments posted here and a number of other web sites discussing the matter now.

I’ve also had some very kind emails expressing sympathy, outrage and support from a wide variety of people, many of whom I have never met, including some people who I can’t name because they work in the book industry in the UK (indeed some actually work for Waterstone’s all around the country) and I don’t want to cause them any problems – nonetheless it was very kind of you to get in touch with me, thank you. Kind words from several writers and editors I have worked with have helped cheer me up. One editor generously commented that I had helped increase the awareness and sales of some of their imprint’s writers. It’s nice to know that so many people appreciated my efforts in bookselling, even if my own company ultimately did not.

As the ostensible reason for my being dismissed was that my sarcastic rambling were bringing the company into disrepute (a rather flexible and nebulous term) this whole shameful debacle has been something of an own-goal for Waterstone’s. The thing is, they must have anticipated that the story would become more widely know if they fired me. Both my union rep and I pointed out that potential bad publicity could be an outcome if I was fired (in a general manner, we certainly did not threaten them with such a tactic).

As this move was supposedly because they felt I was causing harm to the company’s image why then would the company make this move which could only result in more discussion and coverage of their actions, which most folk seem to agree was heavy-handed? It seems to fly in the face of the argument that they were trying to protect their public image. Quite a number of people have expressed their disgust and their intention to go elsewhere for book purchases, so this whole thing has been an enormously counter-productive move and one which need not have happened had reason prevailed.

Among the latest folk discussing developments(not enough time and space to list everyone) are: The Community At Large, Scribbling Woman, The Republic of T (which also has an interesting piece on an international blogger’s rights ‘bill‘), Detrimental Postulation, Cyber Junky, Foreword.