Hi, I'm Rob, and this is where I log the books, films, articles and other cultural flotsam that has caught my attention.

Consumed the week of 4 and 11 of March, 2019

Above: ‘Funny video of high school student calling his teachers by their first names’. That’s all you need to know really.

I missed last week just because I had a bunch of stuff on and didn’t have a lot of time to get any of this down. My wife was away in the US with work so I’ve been keeping myself busy/distracted, which means catching up with friends, eating and drinking out a little too much and discovering the delights of Mario Versus Rabbids on the Nintendo Switch.

Talking of video games… By far my favourite read of the week was Pac-Man: The Untold Story of How We Really Played The Game about how the particular pattern of wear on the sides of Pac-Man machines arises from the nature of the game.

Fantasy’s Widow: The Fight Over The Legacy Of Dungeons & Dragons is a slightly depressing long read from Kotaku about the paranoia, uncertainty and shitty behaviour that inevitably occurs when a creator leaves behind a much-loved and potentially lucrative intellectual property.

One of the things I did this week was to play poker with friends. I haven’t done that in years and it was a lot of fun. Coincidentally, I also read The End of Poker Night, Mindy Greenstein’s memoir about her Jewish parent’s poker habit.

For Theranos nerds: How a broken patent system sustained its decade-long deception is a short, eye-opening read about how patent submissions (in the U.S. at least) don’t really need to actually work in order to be granted.

Probably the most necessary read of the month is The World Wide Web Turns 30. Where Does It Go From Here? by Tim Berners-Lee. Will be interesting to see where this goes.

Not as urgent, but still really interesting, Steven Spielberg Has Picked The Wrong Way To Argue Against Netflix from Digg is a good breakdown of the Hollywood spat.

Best visuals of the week goes to An Interview with Pascal Blanche from Sci-Fi-O-Rama.

A quick but of music to leave you with: Lissie covering Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.

Consumed the week of 25 February, 2019

I am sitting here in my living room, at the end of a week that began with temperatures in the 20s and with people lounging around outside, in their shirt sleeves… and right now all I can hear is the rain lashing against our window and what sounds like a nascent hurricane slipping under the gap at the bottom of our front door.

And, yes, you’re correct if you thought these posts were getting more ‘writery’. I’m enjoying putting some proper sentences together, so thought I might as well make the most of it.

I haven’t read a whole lot this week. I am, God help me, reading the thriller novel I Am Pilgrim. I picked it up because it was recommended to me by two separate people in the space of a week (even though it was published a few years ago) and I trusted the serendipity.

It is, I can confidently say, one of the most poorly-written books I’ve ever read. I mean, it’s bad. Very bad. I want to give you some examples but it’s almost too painful. Also I don’t want to highlight them on my Kindle in case some rogue AI thinks I’m appreciating the awful sex/weapon metaphor.

I’m equally confident that I’ll finish it though. I’m not sure why. It’s entertainingly bad I guess. Plus, I have a rule that you can’t really criticise anything unti you’ve finished it.

I have watched quite a bit this week. As well as blitzing my way through the whole first series of Fleabag (ahead of series two starting this week), I also watched the clumsily titled doc Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s “Island of Dr. Moreau”, which is essentially a cross between Hearts of Darkness and Jodorowsky’s Dune, but on a Tesco Value budget. I really liked it.

Also watched this week: Steve McQueen’s Widows (good, but not up to the standard of McQueen’s previous films, and as a heist film it’s just not exciting or stylish enough); and Bohemian Rhapsody (very entertaining and a great performance by Rami Malek, but obviously riddled with historical liberties and inaccuracies and a little bit blunt with its message – so very like Green Book then).

By far my favourite watch of the past few days has been the third series of Documentary Now! which has featured Batsh*t Valley (i.e Netflix’s Wild Wild Country) and Original Cast Album: Co-Op (i.e. Original Cast Album: Company which I’d never heard of but I’m going to watch). They’re very funny, but also the care, attention, detail and downright love that’s evidently poured into each episode just really appeals to me (I put this and Inside No. 9 very much in the same bucket).

My favourite long read of the week was from Gizmodo (not sure I’ve ever said that before!). Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real hits all of my buttons in a very satisfying way, plus I’d never even heard of it before. I love discovering stuff like this.

I also read My Restaurant Was the Greatest Show of Excess You’d Ever Seen, and It Almost Killed Me which is not nearly as macho as it might sound.

Music-wise this week, here’s the new one from the ever-dependable Kieran Hebden:

Consumed the week of 18 February, 2019

Above, Justin K. Thompson, the production designer on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse talks about the experience of creating the film at the brilliant The Story conference this week.

The Story is pretty much the only conference I try and attend every year, and as this year was the 10th anniversary there was no way I was going to miss it. It was a fantastic day with some awesome speakers. My personal favourites were Alison S.M. Kobyashi talking about her performance, Say Something Bunny, and the brilliant and hilarious Sara Wajid (Head of Engagement at Museum of London) talking about cultural diversity, museums and ‘bounce’.

Also this week I managed to work my way through Netflix’s new superhero show, The Umbrella Academy. I didn’t read the original comics, but I liked the take on post-Watchmen/postmodern ‘heroes are real people too’ trope, and the production design was lovely. Plus, a Tiffany dance montage! What’s not to like.

Some other visual treats for you from this week…

This beautiful little video essay from the streets of NYC, about photographer Patrick Barr aka ‘Tiger Hood’ the urban golfer:

And Dieter Rams’s 10 Principles of Good Design:

I read another interview with Steven Soderbergh this week, this time from The Atlantic. Always read Soderbergh interviews, that’s one of my principles 🙂 .

I don’t write much (anything) about clothes here, even though I do find fashion pretty interesting (even though I don’t really like using the term ‘fashion’). I’m an avid follower of the blog Put This On and they just published this article on the genesis, history and current state of Esquire and GQ (combining my interests in fashion and magazine publishing, hurray).

I seem to have read a lot about the internet and the state of digital culture this week, and not a lot of it is cheery.

The always-interesting Caterina Fake (co-founder of Flickr) wrote about why Thoreau was a technophile, and ended her post with a now pretty common sentiment that what was first joyful and revolutionary about the web has been degraded and we should seek to get back to it somehow:

This is what I first loved about the internet: it connected us to each other. We love to connect! But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to.

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.

Then there’s this by Hossein Derakhshan, who spent six years in prison for blogging in Iran, in which he states: ‘The rich, diverse, free web that I loved  —  and spent years in an Iranian jail for  —  is dying’, before asking ‘Why is nobody stopping it?’.

This essay by curator and journalist Sarah Burke isn’t about the internet per se, but her “investigation of authorship, community, and the value of informal collaborations” got me thinking a lot about my initial attraction to online communities, and how they served as a gentle and safe way for me to meet so many new and interesting people. I always tried to create those feelings for other people in a lot of projects I was involved in (from Londonist, to Qype, to Documentary Club), but as the web evolves into something that is no longer collaborative and personal and communicative, I feel like that is becoming so much harder and that’s a big cause of regret for me.

And talking of online communities, The Atlantic wrote something depressing about the campaign to take down Fuck Jerry and The Limits of Extremely Online Organizing.

Away from the internet for a bit. The Paris Review published a great, really personal essay about the documentary feature Minding The Gap, which I watched a few weeks ago and really enjoyed.

Wired had this great article (from last year, but I only just saw it) on Elizabeth Holmes (of Theranos infamy) and her place as the first feminist antihero.

And Buzzfeed published this tremendous piece of longform crime journalism about, “Tomi Masters… a 23-year-old from Indiana who moved to California with dreams of making it big in the cannabis business. Then she met a hacker who introduced her to a dark new world of digital manipulation, suspicion, paranoia, and fear — one that swallowed her alive and left her floating in a river in the Philippines.”

I’ll leave you this week, with this a beautiful new track from Tim Hecker:

Consumed the week of 11 February, 2019

This week I drank a few pints of white chocolate, strawberry gelato beer (which also includes chilli and basil) and it was actually really good.

I spent the weekend up in Manchester (Stockport, actually) which gave me the chance to draw monster comics with my nephew (I expect my creation, Cheesezilla to be optioned by Marvel very soon), as well as some train time to watch Stephen Soderbergh’s new one, High Flying Bird (shot on entirely in iPhone and starring the fantastic Andre Holland).

I’m almost finished with Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success which was on quite a few people’s ‘best of’ lists at the end of 2018. It’s going to have to really pull it out of the bag in the last 50 pages or so for me to remember it at the end of 2019 (it’s good, but not great).

The best thing I saw on the internet this week was kubrick.life, a beautifully designed celebration of the director’s life and work. Coincidentally, tickets just went on sale for Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition opening at the Design Museum in April. I will be there.

I haven’t got into the habit of using newsletter app Stoop yet, (maybe because I don’t normally read things that require more than a little bit of attention on my phone), but Craig Mod’s smart essay on the rise of the newsletter is great and has some good suggestions for new subscriptions.

I’ve been listening to the Electric Lady Sessions album by LCD Soundsystem as well as Laurie Spiegel’s Expanding Universe, and the follow up Unseen Worlds.

Below, the ‘making of’ video for that recent Spike Jonze/Idris Elba Squarespace ad (yes I’m a Spike Jonze fanboy, so sue me):

Consumed the week of 4 February, 2019

Above is Purl, a new animated short from Pixar about a ball of wool that starts a new job at B.R.O. Capital and “quickly feels out of place among all the men in suits”.

Talking of childish delights… Cookie Monster did a Reddit AMA this week, and it was predictably brilliant. Kottke has a great summary of the best bits, including:

Q: We know cookies are your favourite food. What is your second favourite food?
A: Can me say more cookies…?
A2: Me thought it over. Definitely “more cookies.”

I didn’t do a lot of article reading this week, but I did devour this fantastic New Yorker article about thriller writer, and apparent compulsive liar, Dan Mallory.

I haven’t read Mallory’s book The Woman in the Window, and I’m not likely to now. But this week I did finish listening to Bruce Daisley read his book The Joy of Work, which deservedly topped the Sunday Times business book list.

I did read a couple of slightly nerdy/work-related things about Spotify‘s acquisition of Gimlet Media. First this frank and informative Q&A with Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, and second, Ben Thomson’s analysis of the deal for his Stratechery site.

Also this week, a friend introduced me to the brilliant (if a bit stressful) board game Magic Maze (definitely considering buying myself this one), and I watched the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap (the director is 24 years old!).

And finally for this week, here’s a nice peak behind the scenes of that Spike Jonze-directed, Idris Elba-starring Squarespace ad:

Consumed the week of 28 January, 2019

Above, the beautiful “10-by-20-foot oil painting of an elaborately coifed and dressed 17th-century marquis and assorted courtiers entering the city of Jerusalem,” discovered while they were preparing the new Oscar de la Renta boutique in Paris. You can read the full story of how they found it and what’s going to happend to it over at the NY Times.

BY far my favourite long-ish read of the week was this incredibly evocative essay by Catherine Taylor, in which she “tracks cultural history through a Sheffield bookshop”.

Just this excerpt alone is enough to send shivers through me:

Leeds was an hour away from Sheffield and the fear of where the Ripper would strike next was tangible that dark winter. It seemed to permeate everything, dank, mossy, and slimy as Frog Walk, the narrow, unlit footpath which ran alongside the high walls of Sheffield’s overgrown, neglected General Cemetery in Sharrow. It slid, cold and viscous, into my dreams at night like the mercury escaping from a thermometer.

Staying with the bok theme, A Labyrinth in the Shape of a Book is a great article about Christopher Manson’s 80s puzzle book Maze (formatted in the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style the book itself was written in).

As for what I’m currently reading right now, I’m about a third of the way through Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, which I saw on a lot of people’s ‘best of 2018’ lists. And I’m alos listening to Bruce Daisley reading his new one: The Joy of Work: 30 Ways to Fix Your Work Culture and Fall in Love With Your Job Again, which I’m really enjoying and getting quite a lot out of.

Finally this week, we saw Adam McKay’s Vice at the cinema. I didn’t like it as much as did The Big Short, mainly becasue it seemed too packed with gimmicky directorial flourishes which put the brakes on the flow of the story. A shame, becasue the performances ar every good (Sam Rockwell especially).

Consumed the week of 21 January, 2019

Above, the brilliant Phoebe Waller Bridge answers Vogue’s 73 questions. Murder Murder Hair!

Last year I averaged one book a week. So far this year I’ve averaged one a month. That’s entirely down to Charlis Palliser’s The Quincunx, a 1,200 page mid-nineteenth-century “sensation novel” that was actually published in the late 1980s. I heard about it through this Neil Armstrong article on the Unbound blog which touches on the author’s claim that this is actually a “post-modern” novel with an “unreliable narrator” and that there’s a hidden narrative at play. I’m very glad I read it, but I can’t say I was as enamoured as Armstrong and his fellow Quincunx obsessives are. The book’s length just wasn’t supported enough by either the strength of the narative or the mystery of the construction. If I want that kind of book I think I’d go back to Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

This week I also installed the Stoop app on my phone. As someone who has carefully pruned their RSS feed to perfection over the past 15 years or so, I’m a little dubious, but willing to give it a go.

To give it the best shot possible I’m subscribing to all the people Robin Sloan names as part of the Republic of Newsletters:

Its neighbors include Alan Jacobs’s newsletter Snakes and Ladders, Alexis Madrigal’s 5IT, Joanne McNeil’s All My Stars, and Warren Ellis’s outstanding Orbital Operations, which remains the best ongoing chronicle of a working writer in the English language… High up on the hill lives the very smartest member of the Republic — he is a wizard, just about — who is named Charlie Loyd. His latest dispatch was a stunner, even by the very high standard he has established; I’m almost afraid to send you over, for fear you’ll never return. There are sections I could blockquote — want badly to blockquote — but blockquotes don’t do Wizard Loyd’s emails justice, because they are so organic, so clearly Made From Thoughts.

This week I watched Glass, going in with higher hopes than I should have thanks ot my love of Unbreakable (and my admiraion of Split). I was, of course, a bit disappointed. I only have myself to blame I guess.

I also watched Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell’s folow up to the brilliant It Follows. This was a huge disappointment. Massive. A mysoginistic, bloated, giant stink of a disappointment… I didn’t like it.

What I did like was the article Bruce Willis Gets No Respect from The Ringer. A great, little assessment of Willis’ career, from Moonlighting onwards.

The essential long read of the week was undoubtedly Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article Does Journalism Have A Future? (the short answer is, I think, yes, but none of us know what it looks like yet).

Anab Jain’s Medium article Stop Shouting Future, Start Doing It was tweeted by at east half a dozen people I follow this past week. Probably because they (we) have all been frustrated our and/or someone else’s lack of ability to “forfeit fear for uncertainty, to let go the clutches of deeply ingrained structures, and give way to the unknown.”

Finally this week, this Twitter thread by @forwardnotback made me smile.

Consumed the week of 14 January, 2019

There’s two very distinct themes in my media consumption this week. One theme (as you might have guessed from the clip above) is The Sopranos. My favourite TV series of all time (yes, it’s far superior to The Wire, West Wing and Breaking Bad… don’t @ me) is 20 years old this month, so there’s a lot out there to consume.

The clip of the series finale comes from Esquire‘s 15 Moments That Made ‘The Sopranos’ The Greatest Show Of All Time (it came in at number two), meanwhile the NY Times has a predictably grumpy interview with David Chase, and The Cut asked its writers to name the small Sopranos moments that had stuck with them all this time.

The second theme is a recurring one: modern social media Vs the blogosphere. Jason Kottke has a good, and relatively balanced post on how we might change social networks for the better, while Vice dedicated an episode of their podcast to the argument that Facebook should be replaced by a network of personal websites.

Sticking with the web… I saw someone at work reading Bob Hoffman’s book last year and my hackles were immediately raised (something about the snarky tone and the shit design of the book itself just put me on edge), but damn if this isn’t a good dissection of why targeted advertising isn’t a good way to build brand affinity.

Elsewhere Kayleigh Donaldson’s thorough and thoughtful take down of ‘influencer’ Caroline Calloway and her Creativity Workshop Tour was absolutely fascinating.

It reminded me so much of the TanaCon debacle from last year, and of course the most recent and high profile example of privileged, arrogant clusterfuckery: the Fyre festival (the Netflix doc is the best kind of car crash TV).

Another doc that I need to seek out is The Raft, the story of a 70s science project that “descended into violent chaos”. The Guardian article Mutiny on the Sex Raft is a really good introduction to the hole bizarre story.

Finally this week, a couple of podcasts I enjoyed this week: Reply All on Harry Potter and internet trolls. And Futility Closet on the Halifax Explosion.

Consumed the week of 7 January, 2019

Above, Chance the Rapper meet Cookie Monster (and Elmo). Difficult not to love.

At the other end of the spectrum, here’s a long and quite technical read about The Rise and Demise of RSS from Motherboard. It’s not an easy read but if, like me, you think the death of RSS was a pretty big nail in the coffin of the open web, then it’s an essential one.

Another good longish cultural read comes from The Ringer and their article on The Art of the Pan: What’s the Point of a Bad Review in 2019?, which asks writers from Pitchfork, The New York Times, and others to reflect on questions like have reviews gotten harsher or softer?

Steven Soderbergh published his now traditional end-of-year list of his Movies, TV Series, Books and Plays Seen, Read in 2018. It’s a great source of inspiration for anyone who cares about culture (both pop and otherwise).

There seems to be a trend towards magazines writing ‘high brow crime stories’, and as someone who really enjoys a great caper tale, that’s a pretty good thing. But I couldn’t help feel that the The New Yorker‘s The French Burglar Who Pulled Off His Generation’s Biggest Art Heist was trying a little too hard to create an air of mystery and romanticism around a bit of tool in the form of Vjeran Tomic. Still worth a read though.

Someone who is always worth a read is Jeff Jarvis, and his latest Medium essay on Donald Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marshall McLuhan’s conception of hot and cool media is no exception.

Still working my way through The Quincunx so no books to add to the list this week. But I did watch Green Book and really enjoyed it (before I’d read up on all the criticism that surrounded it).

Consumed the week of 31 December, 2018

Although this is my first post of 2019, the title still has the number 2018 in it, so let’s do a very quick retrospective.

I read 52 books last year. Here they all are. I admit that I got to 51 in the few days running up to the end of the year and so packed in The Drunken Sailor by Nick Hayes (a biograpy of Rimbaud in graphic novel form) in under two hours just so I could say I’d read an average of a book a week. Quite pathetic really.

And I watched 37 films last year (here’s that list if you’re interested). That’s quite a lot less than 2017, I think that’s mainly because I read so much more. I think the Dance to the Music of Time project (a book a month for all 12 months) really helped keep up my reading habit.

To finish off the Anthony Powell mentions for the time being here’s a link to the episode of Backlisted about the 8th volume of The Dance, Books Do Furnish a Room. Myself and a couple of friends were at the recording at the LRB Bookshop in London and we get a little mention a few minutes in.

And (this is absolutely the last Powell thing, I promise), here’s Christopher Hitchins writing about Powell and The Dance in the New York Review of Books back in 1998, which I was able to read after finishing the 12th volume in December.

Ok, on to some new stuff. I got round to reading some of the articles that appeared on Longreads’ ‘best of 2018’ lists, and a couple of my favourites were That had to hurt.’ Lessons learned on the diving board in summer’s final days from the Washington Post, and (trust me on this) Do Men Enter Bathtubs on Hands and Knees So Their Balls Hit the Water Last? from The Cut.

While we’re on the topic of ‘weird’, I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America, by Lauren Hough (“a 6-foot lesbian” in her own words) from The Huffington Post is fascinating if a bit depressing.

Of the few tech/internet related things I’ve read so far in 2019: The Cost of Living in Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet Empire is both the most saddening and the most accurate. This bit really hit home for me:

“The internet of 1995 and 1999 and 2001 and even 2007 was a backwater by today’s standards, but to me, it was the most wonderful thing. It was strange and silly and experimental and constantly surprising, and it made you feel good about other people, because online, away from corporate media and every channel of established culture, other people turned out to be constantly surprising too. They translated Anglo-Saxon poetry and posted photographs of Victorian ghosts and told you, to your eternal benefit, about what it was like to be someone other than yourself (in my case, to be a woman, to be a person of color). They wrote fascinating, charismatic diaries. And all of this, this faster, weirder, more forgiving universe, was right there, at your fingertips, for free. This sounds like nostalgia, but it was how I really felt at the time. We were making this thing together.”

Something else great from late last year is Crag Mod’s essay in Wired about what happened to ‘The Future Book’ we were all promised.

And, finally for tech stuff, Benedict Evans has some interesting stuff to say about why content isn’t king anymore.

Away from the internet and just thinking about ‘stories’ in a wider sense, this article from Latif Nassar, Director of Research for WNYC’s Radiolab, about how he finds new stories is great (ok, so most of them he finds via the internet, but what do you want me to do?). Absolutely internet-free is this essay from The London Review of Books on the work of Agatha Christie (yes, I watched Malkovich as Poirot over Christmas and enjoyed it, I also discovered that there’s a character in a Christie novel called Miss Hinchcliffe!)

I haven’t finished reading any new books myself this year, mainly because I embarked on Charles Palliser’s 1200-page epic The Quincunx after reading this post about it on the Unbound blog. I have watched a few new films though. Eighth Grade was very good and so was The Favourite (God bless Olivia Colman), and Bad Times at the El Royale was a pretty fun, pulpy romp. But seeing Japanese zombie comedy, One Cut of the Dead at the Prince Charles Cinema was an absolute treat. Definitely making it on to my ‘best films of 2019’ list I think.

Finally this week, a couple of short videos. This TED Salon talk about puzzle hunts is pretty fun and interesting:

And this short video essay about the last chess shop in New York is just beautiful.

Happy new year!