Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How To Write Steroscopic Poetry

Nearly seven years ago I wrote a stereoscopic poem called 'Staring'.

You can view it here on the hidden-3d.com site.

If you stare at the text and let your focus land some distance behind the screen, you should see something... interesting.

Anyway. I'm telling you about this because I just received email from a very nice person who wanted to know more about it for a class they are teaching, and I have nearly finished an email back to them giving the Whole Secret Away.

Since I'm doing that anyway, I thought I'd post it here too.

So, herewith: instructions for writing stereoscopic poems:

I figured it out when I was trying to make regular steroscopic images myself, and was researching online. Turns out the trick is to have multiple identical columns of... stuff... can be anything really... hence the sort of colourful white noise that most of the pictorial stereoscopic images use - what you do is you place several of those columns next to one another and then change ever so slightly just the parts that you want to 'pop' from the image, but only in some of the columns, not all of them.

This becomes particularly clear if you look at the other abstract ASCII stereograms on the http://www.hidden-3d.com/ site.

If you examine my text for 'Staring' closely - literally counting the spaces - you'll see that the four columns of identical text are not exactly identical after all. Some of the words have two spaces on one side and one space on the other, instead of the normal one space per side. That allows the stereoscopic writer to choose which words pop out, by simply shifting the side of the word in which the space is placed in one of the columns. When you get the stereoscopic view of the text, by focussing on a point some way behind where you would normally focus, the four columns turn to five. And the words that have been shifted by one space in one of the columns seem to pop out in 3d towards you.

Don't ask me why. I'm a writer (and sometime coder), not a physicist, neuroscientist or opthamologist :)

Anyway. So the trick to writing one of these is this:
  1. Write a long poem. About anything. Doesn't matter. Short lines are essential for this though, so you'll need to bear that in mind.
  2. The hard bit. Make a shorter poem a) using only words that occurred in the longer poem, and b) in the *exact* order they occurred in that poem. You can only use each word once. It's as if you are skipping through the longer poem, missing out all the words except for the ones that make up your new poem.
  3. Type your long poem out in a column, then duplicate it three times. ESSENTIAL - use a fixed width font like Courier. I found that drawing columns using '*' helped but this is not necessary. Haven't done this in seven years but I seem to remember that it *had* to be four columns - three didn't work and nor did five. Can't remember why and I may be wrong.
  4. In each column of the long poem, add an extra space on one side of each of the words from the shorter poem.
  5. For each word of the shorter poem, choose a column where you want it to pop out and flip the side of the word where the space occurs, in that column *only*.
  6. That's it.

I found that columns of about 25 characters in width were ideal, but YMMV.

If you write one, let me know. I'd love to read it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Jeremy Corbyn Song

I wrote a thing. It's probably woefully outdated by the time you read this.



Also, that YouTube 'share to Blogger' button is way borked. Woo.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Brexit

Democratically, the basic problem is this: there is no way a 51.9% share of a 72.2% turnout (so ~37.5% of voters) provides a remotely comfortable mandate for major constitutional change.

It's the worst possible result - a 3.8% margin of victory which is neither quite small enough to easily ignore, nor quite large enough to take as an actual mandate.

1.27 million votes is still a Big Number, though.

Compare 1975, when the referendum on whether the UK should join the then EEC was won by 67.2% to 32.8%. Some may not have liked it but no-one could argue with that result. Turnout slightly smaller than this time, but still a clear answer to the question.

This time it's perfectly reasonable to say 'it's about 50/50 and we not only shouldn't but can't and mustn't do anything drastic'. Massive constitutional change of this sort, if it must be taken to referendum, should require a clear majority. Something like 60-65%. That doesn't seem unreasonable, and it is astonishing to me that something like this wasn't put in place in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Meanwhile, drastic things have already been done, such as the bloody thing having happened in the first place, the perfectly reasonable - if essentially meaningless so far - EU response that we in the UK can fuck off as quickly as possible please before we do any more damage, and the utterly fucking terrifying open racism of so very much of the Leave campaign and the Leave support.

Of course not all Leave voters have done so on the back of racism. But they have all done so in league with it. I have friends who voted Leave who do not yet realise this and who may never realise this. These are by and large not people who think about politics much and if I haven't raised the point with them it is because I know they will get defensive and start defending the idea of voting along with the fascists when they happen to agree with a tiny part of what they are all voting for. And that is not an argument which will go anywhere helpful.

I also have far too many friends of friends who have turned out unexpectedly to have openly voted Leave because they actually turn out to think there are too many immigrants in this country. Those are not friends of mine, and it has been terrifying to me - as a third generation immigrant myself - to see first-hand how fucking easy it is for demagogues to get traction among people who don't generally care much for politics and stir up the very worst in them.

Then there's the Lexit crowd, precisely none of whom have provided any justification for going along with the fascists. Because there is none and can be none.

And finally, the people who Laurie Penny mentions in her fine article, linked here, where she says 'when all you have is a hammer, all problems start looking like David Cameron's face'. Which is all very well, but also lurches into the territory of oh, these poor people are so fucked, you can't possibly expect them to understand complex things like politics. And here's me thinking that the Labour movement was supposed to be all about people who were so fucked they had no choice but to get a very fucking good understanding of politics PDQ.

Which it used to be, but hasn't been for too long.

Obviously it's completely crazy talk but if the Labour movement actually made some kind of effort to connect there it might just gain some traction. Instead everyone wants to knife Corbyn because of unpleasant things he said about their mate in 1994 or whatever else their problem with him may be. Over here in the Green party we're far too busy hugging trees and thinking about the planet to bother with that kind of shit, but someone urgently needs to deal with the fact that UKIP are moving in and need to be confronted, directly, at grass-roots, with a better and non-shit alternative.

And the vote was *so* close. If they'd extended the franchise to 16-18s we wouldn't be having this conversation, because it would have been 52-48 the other way: in referenda on major change you need a clear majority in favour to proceed; anything else means you don't. The tiny majority in favour - what we have - is the nightmare no-one wins result.

[originally posted as a comment on the MeFi mega Brexit post]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Making The 8Bitdo NES30 Pro Work With RetroPie On Raspbian Jessie

Last night was long.

I've got a shiny new Raspberry Pi model B running NOOBS. I've got an 8Bitdo NES30 Pro bluetooth joypad. I've installed RetroPie on the thing using the RetroPie-Setup script.

All I wanted to do was to get the controller to work.

And no matter what I did, Emulationstation refused to recognise it. Even when it - occasionally - paired via Bluetooth.

After hours poring through endless forum posts mainly involving instructions to use bluez-* scripts that no longer exist on Raspbian Jessie, I had run out of hair to tear out and was ready to start tearing out other people's.

Finally, at about 4am, I found The Magic Forum Post containing the actual solution that worked for me. If you are reading this and you are in a similar situation, hopefully this will also work for you.

If your problem is that you can get the controller to pair but Emulationstation swears blind that it can't see any controllers, and when you press F4 you get a whole lot of SDL errors about key 314 not being recognised, hopefully this is your answer.

Basically the problem is this: for some reason the system sees the NES30 Pro as a keyboard and mouse, but not as a joystick. The fix is to add a udev rule that forces it to be registered as a joystick.

Creating the following file, called 10-local.rules in /etc/udev/rules.d accomplishes that:

# Add the ID_INPUT_JOYSTICK attribute to the device so SDL picks up on it

SUBSYSTEM=="input", ATTRS{name}=="8Bitdo NES30 Pro", MODE="0666", ENV{ID_INPUT_JOYSTICK}="1"

I altered the ATTRS{name} bit from The Magic Forum Post to reflect the exact name given to my 8Bitdo controller by the system (eg output of hcitool scan when the thing is ready to pair) and you should do the same.

Yes, it's a bodge. But it's a bodge that works, and that's what you need when all you really want to do is play Super Mario Kart and not stay up all night reading forum posts with conflicting advice.

It is not clear where the actual problem lies: is it the controller's fault for not reporting itself successfully as a joystick, is it somehow udev's fault for not recognising the controller as a joystick, is it SDL's fault for not recognising 8Bitdo's products, or is it somehow all of these and none? With such a nasty interaction bug between three systems (five, if you count Emulationstation and RetroPie themselves) it certainly doesn't look like there'll be a proper solution any time soon.

Meantime, bodge away and you're sorted. Further background on the fix can be found at The Magic Forum Post. Hopefully you have found this post before 4am.

Good luck!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Brief Encounter

Tonight, as I was leaving the Argyll Arms before busking, I got buttonholed by a woman on the stairs leading down from the toilets.

"Here," she said to me. "Do you know who you remind me of?"

"I've no idea," I replied.

"Barry Gibb," she said.

I paused a moment.

"I don't know if that's a compliment or not, but thank you," I said, eventually.

"Of course it's a compliment," she said. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Of course," I replied. "I only wish I could sing half as well as he could."

She laughed. I smiled.

"So where are you from, then?"

I stopped smiling.

"London." Said I. Because I am.

"Really? How come you're so dark then?"

I am not a guy who can claim to be anything other than white. Though I do have dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. And a mainly dark brown beard, except for the grey bits.

"I don't know..." I tried not to glare too openly at her.

"Are you of Jewish descent?"

"Yes," I said.

"Where in London are you from? Golders Green?"

"Stanmore."

"Oh I know, near Essex."

"No, near Kenton."

"Right," she said.

"Right," I said. And fled.

Fuck you, UKIP.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review - The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

I was busking in Tottenham Court Road tube station the other night, playing my cover of Get Lucky, when a young man walked past me and commented, “You're not really playing that, mate.”

I was stung.

Yes I bloody am,” I replied. “Watch.” And I broke off from the melody to launch into a solo.

But it was too late, the guy had turned his back and was walking away.

Currently my busking act consists of playing lead guitar over backing tracks I have recorded myself into a loop pedal. It never ceases to fill me with a mix of horror and wonder that people less than five feet from me can doubt that I am really playing the melody they are hearing. What do they think my act is supposed to be? World's Best Lead Guitar Mime?

Of course, there's an extent to which such accusations are a form of back-handed compliment.

I like to think I make a pretty good sound when I'm busking, but for non-musicians who don't know what backing tracks even are, it may be easier to assume that the guy with the TfL busking licence hanging round his neck and the beat-up cheap electric guitar couldn't possibly really be playing any part of the music they hear as they pass, let alone the melody part they are singing along to.

And only I know that the backing tracks are all my own work.

There's also an extent to which it doesn't matter – plenty of people can see that I am indeed really playing and a gratifying proportion of them react generously. Generously enough that busking forms a large portion of my income at the moment, enough to fund my band and what I consider to be my 'actual' music.

But there's also an extent to which it matters a very great deal. It speaks to the massive disconnect that many people feel vis-a-vis art and artists and music in particular. To those for whom the only music that counts is what they hear on X-Factor or mass-market auto-tuned pop, mimed on TV and on stage, it must seem utterly impossible that a random guy in a hat standing – right there! – in a tunnel in Tottenham Court Road tube station, with a guitar, some pedals and a tiny 5-watt amp, could actually be playing something they both recognise and like.

Ergo, he can't possibly really be playing it.

Amanda Palmer's entire career has been about embodying the exact opposite of this disconnect.

From the very beginning her music has been about trust and about connecting deeply and directly with people. What she does is not to everybody's taste – her eclectic mix of punk attitude, freak aesthetic, Brechtian cabaret and erudite confessional lyrics is obviously not going to appeal to everyone. But for those to whom it does appeal, it really appeals very deeply indeed. By systematically figuring out how to find those people and stay in touch with them over time – often much more closely than has been usual in the recent history of musicians – she has been able to grow a large and loyal global fanbase.

Her fanbase was large and growing even before her band The Dresden Dolls got signed to a subsidiary of Warner's – a fact that would almost certainly be a great part of why they got signed. Predictably, after a few years of not enjoying being on a major any more than the majority of signed bands do – ie not remotely – she managed, after some struggle, to get herself dropped. Contrary to mainstream expectation, she has since gone on to enjoy even bigger and better success independently of any label, with highlights including the first million dollar Kickstarter campaign by a musician.

Palmer is currently without doubt the most successful independent musician on the planet. She can put out whatever music she wants, when she wants, how she wants. She can tour globally and fill good-sized venues pretty much anywhere, and her fanbase is large enough and generous enough to support her even in difficult times.

How on earth did she do this? Independent musicians around the world, especially singer-songwriter types like myself, are very keen to know. But anyone reading Palmer's book The Art Of Asking as an attempt to explain her success will be disappointed.

To be absolutely clear – it's a great book and a compelling read which I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in either Amanda Palmer or in the business of independent music making in the 21st century. Further, anyone in the latter category who is not also in the former category is frankly an idiot, even if they do not happen to be a particular fan of Palmer's music. What she is doing and the way she has managed her career is important and different and new and the rest of us have a great deal to learn from her. But this book is not the definitive account of the rise and rise of Amanda Palmer. Certain key details are elided or glossed over.

In a work that is otherwise characterised by extreme openness and personal honesty, the part where she discusses the time when The Dresden Dolls were signed to Roadrunner reads a little awkwardly. She describes them simply as a 'metal label' and, for no doubt extremely sound legal reasons, she does not name them at any point, nor mention the major label connection. Rather, she hints at it by discussing the travails of her friend Karen Mantler, who was signed to a major purely as a tax write-off and ended up forced to sell bootlegs of her own unpromoted album at gigs. Later in the book, to be fair, Palmer mentions being a 'refugee from the major-label system', but the part where she describes the process of getting signed omits the fact that Roadrunner is actually a subsidiary of Warner's.

She does however write the following: “The label helped us a lot in the early days. They went right to work making the band better known around the world, especially in Europe and Australia. What we'd been doing at a grassroots level had been effective, but it was slow. They worked fast. They got our music into stores, onto the radio and television. Soon we were flying everywhere, hopping on and off tour buses, doing interviews with bigger and bigger magazines.

That paragraph may come as something of a blow to some: turns out that even if you do gig your arse off, make multiple deep connections with new fans at every gig you do, and figure out how best to use social media to both keep and deepen those connections over time, no independent – not even Amanda Palmer herself – can compete with the sheer breadth of reach still enjoyed by the majors in terms of expanding the audience and reaching those waiting to be reached by that particular music.

But, tellingly, she also writes: “What quickly became apparent to us was that they [the label] didn't understand how to treat – or rather, not treat – our fans. It seemed simple enough to me: you work hard, you play for your crowd, you talk to, communicate with, hug, and connect with them in every possible way, and in turn, they support you and convert their friends into the fold. That's when music works best, when people use it to commune and connect with one another...

One of the strategies the label employed that always baffled me was wanting us to focus all the energy on casting the net elsewhere, to attract strangers, while ignoring our established fanbase. I loved new people. Of course. But it seemed insane to jeopardize the current relationships to find them.”

Worst of all: “The label didn't understand why they should pay for the band to maintain a website year-round. They thought it was something that only needed to be 'up' when we had a new record to promote, and wouldn't pay to keep the site active the rest of the time. I was baffled.

So it's a double bind. You can only build a fanbase in the early days by working just as hard on connecting with people as you do on your actual music, but if and when you do get signed to a major label entity capable of expanding your reach fast and far, they will do that, but they will also bend over backwards to stop you from connecting with your fans in that way.

Additionally, many details of how Palmer actually makes it all work are never mentioned. Right at the end, in the Acknowledgements section, she writes, “I feel like my team gets slightly short-shrifted in this book, because it was way less complicated to write certain parts without including the gory details of how things function in AmandaLand. But so much of my work would be impossible without the small, dedicated collection of people who have my back every single day as I heard off to work.

So no, open and honest as she is, Palmer is not going to tell you everything.

But that's fair enough. The Art Of Asking is not a How To manual for independent musicians looking to replicate her success. Some stuff – most stuff – you have to figure out for yourself. Even if she did go into the gory details, it would help no-one. There is no earthly reason to suppose that what has happened to work out for Palmer in terms of day-to-day Making It All Happen stuff would in any way be applicable to anyone else.

That's not what the book is about.

It's about trust.

It's about connections between people both very generally and very specifically.

The book is also very largely autobiography. Palmer has chosen to tell her story by dealing not just with the general philosophical theme of connection between artist and fanbase as she experienced it through her early busking days as a street statue, her Dresden Dolls experience, and her more recent solo career, but also with the very specific connections that are the most important close personal relationships in her life. A great part of the book consists of detailed accounts of two relationships in particular – that with her friend and mentor Anthony Martignetti, and that with her husband, Neil Gaiman. She uses these accounts not just to explain various aspects of the ups and downs of her career but also to illustrate the very real and often weird issues that occur in terms of actual trust over time even in the closest relationships. I don't feel particularly comfortable discussing those parts of the book in any depth; suffice it to say they are beautifully written and deeply moving.

As for her philosophy of connection between artist and audience, Palmer makes it clear – without quite saying so directly – that most artists do not connect enough and do not make enough effort. They get up on stage, sing their songs and bugger off. Then they wonder why no-one joins their mailing list, no-one buys their album on Bandcamp and no-one funds their Kickstarter.

By contrast, from the earliest gigs onwards, Palmer was making a point of hanging out with and connecting directly with those who her music had touched after each and every performance.

We hung out,” she writes, “and signed merchandise after every show in every town, Pink Dots-style, and a natural outgrowth of our beginnings in which the audience had blurred with our circle of friends. If we wound up getting kicked out of a venue because we'd hit curfew and hadn't finished signing things, we'd parade the remaining fans outside and finish in the street.”

Even more explicitly: “In the early days, we talked to people for as long as they wanted, about whatever they wanted. Once we started touring internationally, these signings would sometimes last longer than the show itself; we'd sometimes play for two hours and sign for two and a half.

This is no cynical ploy. It's a two way street. She writes: “Especially in the early days, when we were playing in small clubs, I was actually AFRAID of the audience. Not afraid they would hurt me... just afraid of their judgement.” And later, “Signing fixed that, because we got to meet a pretty decent percentage of the audience every night. They weren't judgemental... After hundreds of nights of signing, my instinct to fear the audience was worn away... But I never would've known if I hadn't made the effort to stand at the merch table every night; I might have stayed afraid for years. And when you're afraid of someone's judgement, you can't connect with them. You're too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.

Later, as the line between fans and friends and family becomes increasingly blurred, Palmer, now with over a million followers on Twitter, finds herself able to crowdsource pretty much anything. The energy flows not just bi-directionally but multi-directionally. Palmer does the work, makes the music, plays the gigs, stays in touch via her blog and Twitter, and the fans / friends / family get to be constantly involved in almost every part of it.

Not only that, but the fanbase get to connect with each other and with the wider AmandaLand; busker fans get to perform outside her gig venues, other artists get involved in various ways, people exchange flowers etc. This is a far deeper connection between artist and audience than most artists enjoy, and the book is littered with examples of the multi-directional crowdsourcing thing in practice: places to stay with fan-friends around the world, an impromptu gig when unexpectedly stranded in Iceland, all manner of small and large ways in which Palmer acts as a conduit for fans to help each other, and, in London one time, the prompt return of Palmer's stolen red ukulele.

The ukulele thieves were fans. They were very drunk and very remorseful. Palmer forgave them.

Contrary to what Palmer-haters may believe, she's well aware that it's not all rainbows and kittens and flowers and seemingly effortless crowdsourcing. At approximately the point in the book when I was wondering how on earth she can trust people so much without getting burned, she answers directly:

I'm often asked: How can you trust people so much?

Because that's the only way it works.

When you accept somebody's offer for help, whether it's in the form of food, crash space, money, or love, you have to trust the help offered. You can't accept things halfway and walk through the door with your guard up.

When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family.

Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy.

When that happens, the correct response is not:

Fuck! I knew I couldn't trust anybody!

The correct response is:

Some people just suck.

Moving right along.

She doesn't pretend that trust is easy or without risk. In fact, for Palmer, they go together. After describing a far worse incident than ukulele theft, she writes, “I guess the point is, there is no trust without risk. If it were EASY... I mean, if it was all a guaranteed walk in the park, if here wasn't a real risk that someone would cross the line... then it wouldn't be real trust. Now I know it's real. She proved how much I could trust everybody else. Her stupid drunk move just reminds me how safe I am

And her later career has by no means been a guaranteed walk in the park.

The same internet that fuelled the massively successful expansion of Palmer's fanbase both in size and in proximity has also enabled a newly harsh form of backlash and hatred from non-fans, from other musicians jealous of her success, and from straight-up trolls.

When her Kickstarter campaign reached a million dollars, there was a lot of press, and a lot of concomitant backlash. People said absurd things like “I REALLY USED TO LIKE AMANDA PALMER UNTIL SHE STARTED BEGGING HER FANS FOR MONEY.” Palmer makes the very salient point that there is absolutely no reason why she shouldn't be allowed to use Kickstarter. Sure, she has a headstart, but that's actually pretty much the point.

Elsewhere in the book she discusses in some detail the way that Kickstarter – and crowdfunding in general – actually works. First there has to be a crowd, a fanbase, for which you have to work your arse off by producing something good. Then, when you have a crowd, and not until then, you can crowdfund. It's not magic money that comes from nowhere, it's micro-patronage from people who already know they want to support you and are just waiting for you to give them the opportunity.

Following the success of the Kickstarter, Palmer launched a tour, and planned – as she had done many times in the past – to crowdsource members of the fanbase to join the band onstage at each venue to play some of the strings-and-horns arrangements.

Palmer clearly describes what happened next: “The payment for volunteering onstage was the usual crowdsource currency: free tickets and guest list for friends; merchandise, backstage beer, hugs, high-fives and love. The fans knew the drill. The first few shows worked out perfectly.

Then a French horn player wrote me an open letter on her blog, saying that while she was tempted to join the tour, she felt that the lack of payment was unethical. The blog post went viral, the New York Times ran a story, and within days a controversy had blown up.

And gotten distorted to boot. A lot of critics on the Internet were starting to claim that I'd made a million dollars and I wouldn't pay my band.

People are still making the latter claim, despite the fact that it is demonstrably untrue. The band were always paid; the local volunteer fan strings and horn section had always been a part of it. In the end, on this occasion, Palmer did end up paying the volunteers just to defuse things. Some of the volunteer musicians then donated their surprise paychecks to charity, saying they'd volunteered and wanted to keep it that way.

This is a minefield. There is a genuine crisis among musicians over the fact that so many of us find it so hard to get paid at all for anything and so many people constantly try and get music – including live music – for free, as if our work were worthless. But to accuse Amanda Palmer of doing something wrong here is to wilfully ignore the context of what she was asking for and to entirely misunderstand what she was asking for.

On a personal note, it so happens that I did volunteer my services on sax for the London gig, though I didn't get chosen. There was a long comment thread on Metafilter, where I wrote:

It's an Amanda Palmer gig, not a LSO gig. The art-related goals are different, and maybe something that bit more raggedy, that bit more jam-like, is what she is after. That she's getting randomers off the internet to sit in on a couple tunes after one rehearsal the afternoon before the gig should be a clue.

I get paid for some of the music I do and I don't get paid for other music I do, and most people I work with are the same. I'm not earning much from music to say the least. But I'm always particularly grateful when people play with me for free even though they often get paid elsewhere; it's partly because they know I can't afford to pay them, and it's also - I like to think - partly because they actually like my music and perhaps it's important to them to do stuff like this to remind themselves that they play because they love it and not just because of the money.

In the past I've felt bad about this and attempted to pay people (who really ought to be paid, in terms of the calibre of their work) whatever I can afford, even though it's way less than it should be, and had them refuse it - the attitude is something like 'either you pay me at the full rate or not at all, and if not at all it's because I'm into the music, so don't insult me'. That seems fair enough.

One might argue “but she had a million dollars for the tour!”

Firstly, that doesn't actually go all that far in funding a large-scale world tour, which this was. Secondly, and much more saliently, there is the point made later in the same Metafilter thread, where damehex, another musician wrote: “For the record, hopping onstage for a couple numbers, YES EVEN HAVING HAD TO SHOW UP FOR SOUND CHECK TO RUN THROUGH IT FIRST, is not something you ask payment for. If you don't feel like working that night, you don't agree to do it. If you like the person who asked you to do it, you do it for free. Every single working musician I know has done this exact thing dozens or even hundreds of times. I know I have. And many dozens of musicians have done it for me.

And this, a point to which critics seem entirely oblivious, goes way beyond the context of AmandaLand.

Not all musicians – especially those from the classical world – are actually capable of showing up at a jam session and joining in. But for those of us who are, it is a must of musicianship. I've had busy phases where I've had lots of paid gigs and done lots of busking because I needed the money and haven't been able to find time to just sit somewhere and play something random with a bunch of friends and strangers just for the sheer joy of it. I get really frustrated and miserable when that happens. Not only that, but I then play less well when I am being paid. Staying in touch with the sheer joy of playing for the hell of it, because you can, is an absolute must for many of us.

Yes, there is a problem around musicians and money and getting paid. But that's not Amanda Palmer's fault. Offering fans the chance to jam with her band on stage isn't remotely related to that problem.

It's worth reading The Art Of Asking through to the end but perhaps the most powerful section comes right at the beginning, when Palmer describes her time as a busker and the way in which it hardened her as a performer and clarified her thinking about the connection between artist and audience, between art and commerce, and about the difference between asking and begging.

Her act was The Eight Foot Bride – she would stand on crates, dressed in a wedding gown, her face painted white and wearing a black wig. But there was more to it than the usual human statue shtick: she also had with her a vase of fresh flowers. Whenever someone donated she would unfreeze, and ever so slowly hand them a flower.

Once in a while a recipient would refuse it. She writes, “... they didn't understand that they were breaking my heart. Gifting them my flower – my holy little token – was what made me feel like an artist, someone with something to offer, instead of a charity case.

Over the years, though, I got used to it, and instead of taking it personally, I began to understand:

Sometimes people just don't want the flower.

Sometimes you have to let them walk away.

And here is, perhaps, the key to Palmer's whole thesis about art and the art of asking, whether the field is music, fiction, videogames or whatever. Artists of all kinds labour long and hard learning their craft and creating their work, but when they offer it up to the public, something else happens. What is going on now is quasi-mystical - something to do with the connection between giver and recipient.

That connection is a fragile and delicate thing in the beginning. It is up to both sides to tend it and nurture it if they want it to continue. Not every artist will do this the same way – Palmer's book gives a good account of how she does it, but that does not mean that the same thing will work for you. Or for me. Similarly, every recipient of art will be different. Just as every human relationship is different.

But cracking the nut of sustainable success for artists in the internet age is all about making those connections. It's about giving and about asking, when those connections are present. And it's about sustaining those connections over time.

And at the same time, it can't be forced. Connection isn't always there. Sometimes there simply is no connection.

When a man standing five foot away from me does not believe I am actually playing the guitar, when I am actually playing the guitar, that's absolutely fine. This is not a problem I should waste a single ounce of energy being concerned with.

Sometimes you just have to let them walk away.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review - Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny

If you don't believe that Laurie Penny gets disproportionate online hate, try tweeting praise of her on Twitter. When I was halfway through her latest book, Unspeakable Things, I was already so excited and inspired by it that I tweetedHalfway through @PennyRed's Unspeakable Things and I already want to go round handing out copies to strangers demanding they read it.” Within ten minutes, a man named Nicopotamus crawled out of the woodwork to tell me “Please don't force that toss on anyone.

I spent the following hour arguing with Nicopotamus, trying to get him to explain what he meant by that. He continued to shower insults on Penny, accusing her of writing simplistic drivel, of hypocrisy, and of being wrong. Yet he was unable or unwilling to support any of these claims. The closest he got to an argument was his suggestion that she was “'anti-capitalist' yet sells her time and her book for profit on Amazon.” It makes about as much sense to suggest that anyone with anti-capitalist views who gets a book published by a major publisher is automatically a hypocrite as it does to just sit there going 'shut up shut up shut up' at anyone whose views differ from your own, and the more I gently suggested that Nicopotamus was perhaps threatened by her for some reason, the more hotly he denied it.

Perhaps Nicopotamus is genuinely not threatened by Laurie Penny, though that would not explain why he chose to spend an hour of his life insulting her in @ replies to me, a random bloke on the internet who had praised her. As the widespread online attacks on Penny, Anita Sarkeesian, Caroline Criado-Perez, Mary Beard and other prominent women show, the fact is that very many cis white straight middle-class Western men feel very deeply threatened by the numerous intelligent articulate women at the forefront of public discourse both online and off, in 2014. And perhaps, sometimes, they are right to be.

For fifty years,” writes Penny in her introduction, “patriarchy has been telling women to get back to the kitchen, first in genuine outrage, and then with the type of ironic crypto-sexism that is supposed to be amusing: get back in there and make us a sandwich, dear. Those who are so eager for women and girls to go back to the kitchen might think again about just what it is we might be up to in there. You can plan a lot of damage from a kitchen. It's also where the knives are kept.”

Yet Unspeakable Things is not a manifesto for actually cutting up men. Quite the contrary. In the five long essays that make up the body of the book, Penny outlines the case for an inclusive feminism that is ultimately about being a decent human being regardless of your gender or sexuality, a compassionate feminism that aims to create a world of decent human beings who treat one another as human beings.

This is of course extremely threatening in the context of a patriarchy that trains men and boys both to see women as less than human and to deny it.

Penny addresses this explicitly in the chapter on men, Lost Boys: “The reason for a compassionate feminist approach to men is not to spare their feelings. Quite the opposite. Compassion is necessary precisely because to live full lives as we move towards a society that treats women as fully human, men will be required to see themselves and their experience in a new and painful light.

The sort of compassion that is useful to men and boys seeking to escape a world of violence, misogyny and emotional constipation is not the compassion of a priest who forgives sins, but of a doctor who looks at a suffering idiot who waited too long to get an oozing wound checked out and says, firmly and accurately: I'm afraid this is going to hurt.

And it does hurt.

The first chapter, Fucked-Up Girls, is particularly searing. In it, Penny combines her highly personal and moving account of her recovery from anorexia in her late teens with a heavily footnoted takedown of the way patriarchal society systematically disadvantages women and dismantles their ability to participate as freely in the world as men do. Women reading that chapter may not find too much in it that they didn't already know, but to a bloke – even to one who has always considered himself some kind of feminist – it reads like some kind of ugly science-fiction dystopia.

It's interesting that 'ugly' is still the insult most commonly thrown at women to dismiss their power, to get them to shut up,” writes Penny. “Female politicians are called ugly and unfuckable by men who can't quite bring themselves to say directly that they don't deserve their power, that their primary purpose as women should be to please and arouse the opposite sex.”

And yet: “The game is rigged. You can't win, because nobody wins. If you don't diet, blow-out your hair, spend your spare cash on beauty treatments and fashionable clothes, you're considered inferior, letting down professional standards – but if you do, you're an idiot bimbo.”

The thing about being a male feminist is that you can walk away. You can forget the whole thing at any time. Society is set up to encourage men and discourage women across the board, and it takes energy for men to attempt to join the rebellion against this, energy which, in these times of austerity and the necessity to struggle constantly just to survive at all, isn't always available. There's only so much you can take in at one time and it is the easiest thing in the world to start shutting down, to start shutting things out. Often the first voices that men shut out are women's voices. It's easy to do. Many of us men weren't really listening to women in the first place, if women were bothering to talk openly to us at all.

What we are asking men to do is hard,” writes Penny. “Let's be perfectly clear: we have created a society in which it is structurally difficult and existentially stressful for any male person not to behave like a complete and utter arsehole.

She goes on to write, “... the old distributive model of patriarchal power is gone. It never really existed for most people anyway. What the men of tomorrow must do is let it go with grace. Retain some dignity over a perceived loss of power, and people who are not men might speak to you honestly about what real powerlessness looks like.

This is why Unspeakable Things is such a powerful and important book, especially for men. It can be hard for men to find let alone listen to open and honest accounts of how very strange and different the world experienced by women is. Unspeakable Things provides five extended essays' worth on the subject – in addition to the chapters discussed above there are chapters on love, on sex and on the particularly unpleasant and virulent brand of sexism that pollutes the online world.

Make no mistake, Laurie Penny's writing poses a threat to the status quo. And lo! - online there is a small horde of determined and largely male haters. People like Nicopotamus are ready to dismiss Penny's work as 'toss' without reading a word. In the stories they tell themselves – and pop up repeatedly, uninvited, to tell her, and us – it simply does not compute that a young woman could possibly have something important to say.

Stories shape us, even the shit ones,” writes Penny. “Even the ones that are simplistic and obviate a great deal of real-life experience by design. Stories are how we organise our lives, how we streamline our desires, and sometimes they fall short, and sometimes they disappoint us, and they always matter.

Unspeakable Things does not fall short. It does not disappoint. It matters. I urge everybody to read it, even Nicopotamus.

He won't.

But you can.