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Artefacts of light

07 April 2019 01:49PM irlintrospection

For Christmas last year, Grace got me this gorgeous beast:

a nikon nikkormat ft2

Yeah, that's right. I shoot on film now.

In all seriousness though: I've gone from having one phone camera about 18 months ago to having three cameras now - two of which are actually quite nice. And I think it's fascinating the way I think about them and use them differently.

My phone camera is all about remembering. It's always with me, it's small and quick to use. The photos it takes are spontaneous, and the picture itself is often less important than the memory it jogs.

My "proper" digital camera is for sharing. It's more powerful and more flexible and more importantly, produces photos that someone else might want to look at. It's a purposeful storytelling tool, whether that's illustrating a blog post or standing on its own.

This new camera - old camera? - is a different beast entirely. It's got a limited roll and no playback, so every shot is composed. The settings are simple, but they're all manual, so every shot is meditative and mindful. The other cameras are about the result, but this is about the process. It's about enjoying every step of making a thing. This camera is fun.

But I there's something else I want to dig into there as well, something that's a bit deeper than just "it's fun". And to figure out what that is, you have to look at why you'd take pictures on film at all.

When I got them back from the developer, I was blown away by how right these photos looked. Maybe some of that is because I'm used to noisy smartphone pics. But these are crisp and dreamy and awash with style without any kind of filter. The colours are true, in the absence of white balance, but somehow also reflect how the thing felt. They're not photons on pixels, they're so clearly beams etched on film. They are artefacts of light, and they are beautiful, and they are real, and that is worth something.

Because the photos are real. There is no abstraction. There is no digitisation, noise reduction, white balancing or lens correction. There's no fixing the exposure or tweaking the curves. This is nothing more or less than physics slamming into chemistry at 300 000 kilometres a second.

And the camera is real too.

With a frankly astonishing combination of shaped glass and layered chemicals and precision engineering we figured out how to catch light. We did this with a completely mechanical device that moves reliably and accurately in thousandths of a second, that lets in just the right amount of light into a box that's otherwise completely dark. And somehow, on top of all that, it's a joy to hold and use. It is nothing short of genius that we were able to achive this.

We thought of and measured and built this by hand, and it is beautiful.

It's early days yet, but that's what I think I love about this camera. It's closing on 50 years old, and not only does it still work perfectly, it's also still pretty much the pinnacle of its technology. Sure, we've tinkered around the edges since then, adding autofocus and other tweaks to make the job easier, but in terms of exposing a rectangle of film to precisely the right amount of light there's really no further to go.

Computers have eaten the world. We're so used to the idea of machines thinking for us - or at least I am - that when something comes along that's entirely analogue it kind of just leaves me reeling. It's completely dumb, but it's so clever. Cameras, and clocks, and record players and printing presses, and the Saturn V moon rocket - they're works of collective human genius, built bit by bit by thousands of minds. They remind us that we were capable of so much. And when we put our minds to it, we still can be.

Anyway, enough navel-gazing. Go look at some photos:

flickr album preview and link

The Problem With Twitter.

24 February 2019 12:00AM rants

It's about using the platform, not letting it use you.

The sludge

Twitter is a a microcosm of the internet as a whole. It's public. It's anonymous. It's divorced from any sense of humanity. Anyone can comment on anything, and that means some truly horrible stuff is only a click away. You might control what tweets you see initially, but the context you see them in - the replies - that's under the control of complete strangers with nothing to lose.

That's easy enough to control, just as it is on the rest of the internet - don't read the comments. But Twitter's developed this odd habit of inserting random content into your feed from complete strangers, like bizarre intrusive thoughts.

I get why. It comes from the desire to 'surface' new content and drive your follow count up and boost your engagement time and sell more ads. I understand it, but that doesn't mean that I consent to it.

I keep my feed deliberately low-politics for my own sanity, and Twitter are pushing that junk into my face and I don't want it. It's intended to drive engagement, but that increased engagement comes at a cost of decreased enhjoyment.

We seem to have fallen, as a society (and this is a much larger issue that I am really only touching on) into the delusion that getting angry at people is a) a fun pastime, and b) the best way to change minds. And neither of those is true.

So either because people have come to enjoy shouting, or because the platform can't tell the difference between constructive dialogue and horrific trolling (they're both increased platform engagement after all) - or maybe both - the interface injects stuff into my feed when I don't want it there, with the hope that I'll take the bait.

In other words, the platform itself is trolling me.

The rush

Once you actually stop and think about it, notifications make exactly zero sense. Why do I need to know if i've been liked or retweeted? I cannot action that in any way - it's just to give me a nice little dopamine rush.

A little more insidious, though, is the little "pull to refresh" action at the top of your feed. It's a literal Skinner box, conditioning you into pulling that lever over and over because you never know what kind of tasty snack will fall out.

And sometimes, just to keep you on the hook, it refreshes on its own, pulling you out of wherever you're at to take you off to something fresh and new. You can never be finished, you can never be focused. The stream moves ever onwards. The more people you follow, the longer it takes to swim against that stream.

I - and I suspect I'm not alone - like to feel like I'm up to date, and I will keep checking until I am. I want to batch process my twitter feed the way I scrub my inbox - once a day, all at once. An unpredictable streaming timeline makes that impossible.

And again, I get why. It drives engagement, which drives ad sales. But what's good for advertisers isn't necessarily a good experience for users.

The noise

Let's get right down to it - the real problem with Twitter is that there's no single clear reason to use it. Instead you get all your friends, all your interests, all your news, running down one continuous timeline. Which sounds attractive in theory, perhaps even seductively so - one place for all my things, and so many things I like in one place!

Those are actually very different uses for a platform though, and I don't want them all jumbled up together.

I broke mine down by category, and there's about five distinct things I use Twitter for:

  1. I use it to keep up with my friends.
  2. I use it as a platform to directly consume content (mostly bots)
  3. I use it to stay on top of news (mostly science)
  4. I use it to get updates for content on other platforms (mostly blogs)
  5. I use it for service provider notifications

That's a lot of conceptually separate stuff all in the same channel, and it's enough to do your head in.

The solution?

Here's the kicker - none of that is inherent to the platform. Twitter was - and still is - a collection of users posting public timestamped messages. These odd behaviours are entirely an artifact of the interface they've layered on top of that database. Nothing about tweets necessitates streaming updates, or 'surfacing content', or having a single timeline. Those are interface decisions, and you can work around them.

So I've turned off push notifications and automatic updates. I don't get updates on likes and retweets. I use the pro clients, built for the people who sell ads, not the ones who consume them, which have no intrusive content.

And suddenly Twitter is a nice place again.

So what?

If you've come here from Twitter: I will respond to your mention or your DM... eventually. I probably won't pay any attention to what you like and retweet though, so go nuts.

But in terms of a moral? The simple message is that you don't have settle for the interface you're given. The broader message is maybe think about the way you use your technology - and the way it uses you.

Method Of Loci

17 February 2019 06:06PM life

You know that thing where you use a familiar place to help you remember things? Moving house is like that in reverse. You don't realise how much of your memory is tied up in a place until you have to pull it apart.

And when you lose access to the place, what happens to the memories it encodes?

I don't know. I've never had my own place before, and I've never left one. This was the first, and this is what it was like to be there.

There's this faint musty smell, a bit like the inside of a vacuum cleaner. You stop noticing it after a while, but when you walk through the door after a long-haul flight, it smells like home.

There's the sound of hollow creaks and empty footsetps on a deck you and your housemate built in an evening so you'd stop sliding towards those huge, dangerous windows.

and a flyscreen you built yourself too.

There's water you mysteriously never had to pay for. A hot water heater that runs instantly and forever. Showers that last longer than they should, and power bills that cost more than they should too.

It's cramped and stuffy if you have more than about six people in the room, but you try about once a year anyway and you're still not quite sure what to do when they get here - or how to make them leave.

clouds at sunset

There are sunsets over pine trees and palm trees and tiled rooftops, punctuated by the flash of the red light camera up the street. You once got asked "Do you ever just stand here and... look?" You joked about it later, but the truth is, you do.

There's the itch on your stomach and chest as you crawl under your bed to find something you ill-advisedly stored there. Probably the fan, because it's getting towards summer and until you can open the windows and let the sea breeze clean the place out it traps heat like you wouldn't believe.

detritus

A string of fairy lights runs back and forth along an enclosed balcony which started out empty and has slowly filled with the detritus of pastimes and past times.

Laminex "floorboards" which aren't real wood, but they're better than the awful carpet and they were close enough to make it feel like home. There's a box of spares in the laundry that came with the place, and you never really figured out what to do with them.

it was nice when it was wintry too.

You remember how things used to be. Posters became frames, astroturf became a deck, the verge-salvaged chair and stool became a proper classy corner just in time for you to leave. It was never finished, and it's already time to disassemble it.

You wonder how it will look in the future, nothing left of this time but scuff marks.

a sunset so red it looks like the end of the world

Birds. Cars. Trains. Wind. And if you listen hard, the sound of the ocean.

A box of light and warmth against a dark sky.

This is what it was like to be here.

a box of light and colour in the darkness

Seeing Red

08 February 2019 11:15PM fiction

The first colonies on the red planet failed. Some quickly, some quietly, some violently. Something out there was fundamentally hostile - not to our biology, but to our psychology.

Then, out of the blue, one group succeeded. Not just marginally, but wildly. Researchers ran correlation after correlation - until they stumbled on the answer by chance.

The secret to living on Mars had been hidden in our DNA all along - written off as a quirk, not seen for the gold it was:

You don't miss green if you've never seen it.

Island Gothic

06 January 2019 07:30PM travel

You leave The Settlement, through gates designed to keep the wildlife out. Past the turbine hill and the brine lakes, past the bore fields and the fire trails, there are only hills and scrub, punctuated by occasional glades of gnarled, parched trees.

You go on foot, or on a bike. You take only what you can carry, including water for the day. There is no fresh water outside The Settlement. Only the Rangers, working for the Authority, have access to motor vehicles.

You pause to take a break, sweating inside your helmet and protective clothing. You reach into your pack, past the mask and breathing tube you carry just in case you need them, and take a swig from your precious water supply. You take a look around, reflecting on what brought you to this place.

Once, the island was a prison, and then a military base. Now, the centre of the island is a Research Area - although if you ask the folks around you, they'd be hard pressed to tell you what that research actually is. Other than that, The Island is occupied only by transient visitors - travellers, like you - living off desalinated water and food shipped from elsewhere at great cost, bunking in basic accommodations repurposed from another era, searching for... something that escapes definition, but that might just bring you peace.

Because despite decades of habitation - or perhaps thanks to it - they say there's things to discover at the heart of the Island. That, after all, is what dragged you away from the Settlement.

Sometimes, the Guides - not part of the Authority, but with its permission - lead expeditions into the research area at the centre of the island. Or out through the tunnels, part of the disused military installation, under the island. You, though, prefer to strike out on their own, seeking parts of the Island none have yet found.

Youths, in particular, will find an isolated beach somewhere to drink and party - but if the Rangers find them, the full wrath of the Authority will be brought down on them - and the may find themselves kicked off the Island for good. You were one of them, once, but now you find yourself looking for something different.

Something screeches in the distance, something winged and hungry, breaking your reverie. You should keep moving. Staying in one place too long was a good way to have your provisions stolen by scavengers.

You'd taken shelter under an ancient rust-coloured structure, seeking shade, seeking any respite from the scorching temperatures. You step back out on to the road as others come to claim your place. Heat waves rise off the tarmac as the sun scours the landscape - and yet you are thankful to be here. After all, they say things are even worse back on the Mainland...

definitely a hellscape

< An Untitled Fanfic