Baudrillard, Machines, Creativity, and Sameness

Baudrillard - TransparencyAm I a man or a machine? There is no ambiguity in the traditional relationship between man and machine: the worker is always, in a way, a stranger to the machine he operates, and alienated by it. But at least he retains the precious status of alienated man. The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. Video screens, televisions, computers and Minitels resemble nothing so much as contact lenses in that they are so many transparent prostheses, integrated into the body to the point of being almost part of its genetic make-up: they are like pacemakers – or like Philip K. Dick’s ‘papula’, a tiny implant, grafted onto the body at birth as a ‘free gift’, which serves the organism as an alarm signal. All our relationships with networks and screens, whether willed or not, are of this order. Their structure is one of subordination, not of alienation – the structure of the integrated circuit. Man or machine? Impossible to tell.

Jean Baudrillard – ‘Xerox and Infinity’ in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena.

Baudrillard attacked our relationship with technology as one in which everything is flattened to the same thing. The ubiquity of the copy, the impossibility in distinguishing it from what it is supposed to be a copy of, was for him an indication that the difference between reality and its simulacrum has long disappeared. I couldn’t help thinking of his ‘big idea’ – reality as simulation – when watching a recent BBC documentary in which the biologist, Armand Leroi, formed a team of data experts to come up with a formula for making successful chart music. I shan’t give away any plot spoilers here, only that – and I’m not sure whether to be surprised or not (see my closing comment) – he seems to be not the only person who’s thought to apply algorithms to musical composition:

A lot of listeners comment that it sounds a) more like the Beach Boys, and b) rather bland. It fits into one of Leroi’s team’s findings: the most successful chart music is the most average. Every measure the team deployed registered nearest to the middle of the scale the more successful the song. Perhaps this an example of Baudrillard’s pessimistic contention above. In my own A.I. code, I try to produce something that can’t be produced without the technology (with apologies for the shameless self-promotion):

Despite this, my phraseology is dependent extant material – a lot of classic authors as well as Internet discoveries. Yet it seems to me perfectly possible to arrive at results that are outliers far away from any average, and somewhat question the nature of the creative process, what a creative product is, and what it’s for. I quite like this rather strange musical piece:

Why is it that only now we’re starting to encounter AI interventions like these? To go back to Baudrillard’s comments on sameness and difference: computers are only (our) tools, aren’t they?

This post came about after multiple discussions with the rather excellent blogger, Cake or Death.

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Review of CreateSpace on Amazon KDP, Illustrated with Tips

This review of Amazon’s CreateSpace came out of emails I sent when setting up some books for someone else. You don’t need my experience in setting up bulk runs of documents for corporates on bespoke data-processing systems. But determination is a must. I’ve used CreateSpace for my own work, and it strikes me that once a typical user gets past a few obstacles, they can use it with (relative) ease.

AIP - New Catalog

Books instantly look more manageable in Catalog view

What I mean by a typical user is based on the Amazon KDP newsletter: someone with little or no print design experience who wants to publish their novel as a print book. What follows is therefore based on simple requirements. There’s enough here to help a lot of novelists deal with the standard issues that can arise when preparing for print on CreateSpace. As an aside, readers of this review may wish to compare CreateSpace with Blurb and Bookwright, which I have also reviewed.

KDP Dasboard

Part 1: Overview

There are 4 parts to this review: Overview (you are here!), Browsers, Interior Design & Reviewer, and Cover Design & Reviewer. Don’t be tempted to skip the notes on Browsers. In fact, I recommend a test run of your book with a dummy text and cover just to be sure you have a browser that cooperates fully with CreateSpace.

I assume at the outset that you already know what CreateSpace is for. This review is not an advert or a tutorial. What you’ll learn here is some basic considerations that can help you a) to decide if CS is for you, and b) to overcome the not-so-obvious pitfalls that will discourage many unfamiliar and inexperienced self-publishers.

The most basic introductory comment is about the CreateSpace service itself. Users of Amazon KDP who have already published e-Books will have noticed that they now have an option to make print books with CreateSpace from their usual interface. This is the path I used for my own work. Non-KDP people may have come to CS through the CreateSpace site directly. It doesn’t matter how you arrived at CS. The interface is the same.

CS Processing Cover

Get ready to wait. CreateSpace discourages users from constantly making changes.

Before we get to browsers, if I could only give one warning about CreateSpace, it would be this: you’ll do most or all of your preparation offline and then upload it for preview in the Reviewers, so bear in mind that the Reviewers take ages to process your files. Amazon has clearly slanted CreateSpace towards people who are decisive. If you’re used to regularly uploading, viewing, and making endless changes to your digital creations, then CS will drive you mad. You’ll need to get more decisive and make all your changes in one go.

Part 2: Browsers

Adobe Flash

You may need to bear in mind that Adobe Flash must be enabled in your browser to use the CreateSpace reviewers. I’d avoided using Flash ever since someone tried to hack me through it and hold my machine to ransom. If you refuse to use the Flash plugin for security reasons then you’ll not be able to review anything in your CreateSpace account. That’s your call. What you can do is make a fresh backup of your hard drive before your first use of CreateSpace. Then you can enable the plugin before using CS, and then disable it once done.

Not All Browsers Work

The online reviewers on the CS website don’t work at all on Mac OSX Chrome; at least not on mine – there are several versions of both – but you’ll see that there are comments about this online. I downloaded Firefox. CS works fine on it (except for in list view). So consider using an unfamiliar browser.

Part 3: Interior Design & Reviewer

Unless you have professional publishing software such as InDesign, and you’re the typical user I cited above, then you’re likely to have a manuscript as a Word file. Before you upload your masterpiece, and if you haven’t already done so, have a look at some print books to consider what ‘front matter’ you want to include. It’s a chew on your time to forget something and then have to go through all those new uploads. And remember that odd pages are to the right, even to the left.

Supported fonts

CreateSpace will give you errors wherever you have used fonts it doesn’t support. The way around this is to save your Word file with embedded fonts. Where the option is to do this depends on which version of Word you’re using – just look it up in your Help. I only use supported fonts in order to avoid any trouble.

Alignment on Headings

Don’t be tempted to use a different typeface or size for your chapter headings. This includes inserting a large or highly decorative first letter. Flourishes like these in any word processor will nearly always cause the body text on your facing pages to run out of alignment, unless, of course, you’re using professional DTP software that can keep text in line through containers. Fixing this can take a lot of experimentation with sizes. The upload times only make matters worse.

Page Numbering

Remember that word processors normally handle either simplex or duplex A4 documents, not books with facing pages. Depending on the age of your WP, you may not have the option to make page numbering appear alternately on the outsteps of pages. CreateSpace can’t rectify this either. A simple fix is to centre-justify.

Markup errors

In one book I set up for someone, I tried inserting cross-references to page numbers for chapters into their contents page. Cross-references are a little-known feature in Word. Using them meant that when I updated all fields before saving, I knew that the page numbers would be updated on the contents page. Clever stuff, but clever stuff that I eventually removed. I felt that it was potentially risky. Amazon probably outsources printing to companies that are closest to the delivery addresses. There is always the risk that future changes to the Amazon software could cause problems with embedded fields – for example, making your nice page numbers appear as #REF not found, or with a similar warning. Better safe than sorry. I would advise not using any fields if you can avoid them. They do, incidentally, trigger warnings in the Interior Reviewer.

Page breaks and other anomalies

Lem HIghcastle gutter

Uncorrected gutter in Highcastle by Stanislaw Lem

You may find that what you see in Word (or alternative WP) isn’t what you get in CS. I’ve had trouble with page breaks at the ends of chapters. CS can turn double paragraph marks into additional page breaks. You may also find the last line of a flush justified paragraph stretches across the page – i.e. instead of being left justified, as the last line of a flush justified paragraph normally is. If you get problems like these even when you’re using the same font and size throughout your chapters, then you may find you need an additional page break between chapters to clear up formatting errors. I’m not a representative of Amazon, so all I can suggest is that you remember they do offer paid support for users. It’s not cheap. But it is there.

No self-publishing platform is perfect. For example, here’s a picture of the gutter (the space between the left and right page text blocks) in Highcastle by the sci-fi author, Stanislaw Lem, which was published on CreateSpace. You may notice that the text on the left page runs tight against the inside spine. This is because the publisher used the Word template supplied on the CS website. Compare this with the gutter in my book:

AIP gutter

Example of corrected gutter

The reason mine has equal spacing is because I adjusted the CS settings in the supplied Word document. I strongly recommend this. You get an indication of the spacing in the reviewer:

Part 4: Cover Design & Reviewer

Cover templates

There is a selection of cover templates that you can use from within the CreateSpace editor. As with any templates, the range is limited, and your book will look like any other books designed with them. The template editor is easy enough to use. I tried one that enabled me to get an all-white cover by making a large JPG in Photoshop in which I added my cover text. Unfortunately, CS added a grey line down 2/3 of the front part of the spine. I’ve no idea why. Sure enough, the line appeared on the printed sample. I recommend making your own cover PDF outside of CS. It’s easier than you’d imagine …

PDF covers

Designing your own cover from scratch is possible with anything that can output a printable PDF. I use the now ancient Photoshop Elements 6. If you are used to making covers for e-Books, the thing to get used to is that you will be designing for front and back, plus the spine, and flaps if applicable. The dimensions you need to design for depend upon the thickness of your book. This is determined by the number of pages and the type of paper. Fortunately, Amazon has a template generator. If you cannot find the link (which is here at the time of this post), just search Google for ‘CreateSpace cover templates’.

Cover Template

Cover in Photoshop with CS template layer showing dimensions.

The dimensions template is an image file that you can add as a layer to your design in whatever application you’re using. It contains guidelines for the safe areas for your cover images and text. This way you can see where to place your spine text, how to avoid the barcode, etc. You simply adjust its transparency when doing your design to see how close you are to edges and so on. The example above shows the template mixed with the design.

AIP - New Cover in PreviewerThis picture shows the how the design appears when imported into CreateSpace. Point 1 shows the edge of the cover. You can get a free KDP ISBN – this appears on the barcode on the rear of your cover – see point 3.

Cover - 3D

The rotatable 3D simulation is a bit gimmicky, but it does help with assessing the spacing to your cover elements

Most interestingly, point 2 shows a curious warning (click to enlarge and read). Despite the fact that I used an Amazon-generated template for the cover dimensions, I got a warning about the cover size. Oddly, there was no visible suggestion on the preview that anything would be cut-off, or that, conversely, the cover would end up with a white margin around the edges. The print copy I ordered was fine. I suspect that there can be mis-matches that are so minuscule that they don’t affect the results.

In summary, it’s a good idea to reserve a lot of time to get used to CreateSpace. It’s not essential to have years of technical experience, but if you haven’t, you should be able to put a book together with a bit of patience: as long as you keep your design simple. The obvious appeal of CS is that it’s an all-in-one solution. You can do everything in one place, while your customers use a familiar interface for a book that’s printed to order.

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A Song Computer-Generated from Virginia Woolf’s Novel, Orlando – #woolfalong

This is a song that I wrote in 2009 by digitally cutting-up words from Orlando. The minimalism to the music reflected the sparing quality to Woolf’s text and the passing of the centuries in it.

Not sure how well the sharing options work on Soundcloud streams like this, but you’re welcome to try!

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Materiality and Hope in Beckett’s Molloy: #1951 Club

Beckett - TrilogyI post this piece as part of the #1951 Club. I hope the organisers won’t mind: Molloy was originally published in its original French in that year. The piece below was part of something I wrote over 10 years ago but never used for anything.

The following is an examination of the ending of Molloy and how we might receive the call of hope from Beckett’s materiality. I turn for some help to Emmanuel Levinas. To start with, I want to acknowledge Beckett’s contribution to a peculiarly modern form of stoicism that can ultimately be seen as a view that an existential abandonment to a Godless universe is no reason to suspend all hope, but is rather the very precondition for any meaningful affirmation of our stubborn will to ‘go on’, and to persevere even in the face of utter desolation. This materialist-ethical reading is derivable in that Beckett backs up a certain notion of ethics which we could describe as an entirely non-Christian form of asceticism, in the sense that it incorporates a certain acceptance of materialism, and demonstrates a certain lack of hatred for the body or flesh.

These elements certainly appear in Molloy. There is the sex in the dump, the slow poisoning, the anal and excremental, and the interminable agonies:

“For I no longer had one bad leg plus another more or less good, but now both were equally bad … the suffering of the leg at rest was constant and monotonous. Whereas the leg condemned to the increase of pain inflicted by work knew the decrease of pain dispensed by work suspended, the space of an instant.”

But there is something else in the material anguish, something abruptly attested to at the ending:

“Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

This closing statement closes the novel by reopening it with a disparity between the word and the thing that seems to deconstruct itself (we will return to this with the help of Levinas). For example, it could be the impossibility to the words ever hoping to pin down the temporality they live in regardless of any remaining hope to do so, in that there is no reliable guarantor of what ‘was’ or ‘is’. One possibility from this is that the last two sentences are part of what Moran wrote rather than part of his narrated claim about the state of affairs in the novel Molloy (Beckett’s avoidance of quotation marks imply deliberation on this). What is more intriguing is how these closing words underline the lie that is the novel by drawing attention to how what was written may not have been despite any truth contained therein.

In this sense, the closing words annihilate the possibility of the novel preceding them, however, and at the same time, their inclusion in that novel leaves us to doubt any annihilation, to find a renewal of possibility in them, a final hope after all that has happened that in death something transcends the deathly silence brought by the vanquishing epitaph. Molloy, as the testimony to its own life, undoes itself in its dying breath by breathing life back into itself as though there were something supplementary to the materiality of the novel in the words that form it.

I said earlier that Beckett’s closing statement closes the novel by reopening it with a disparity between the word and the thing that seems to deconstruct itself. We can examine this with some help from Levinas. Firstly, to remind ourselves of the end of Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.”

How material was the materiality that was the novel called Molloy? It was before us as a phenomena, then, in an enigmatic about-turn, one of its characters, Moran, calls it(and thereby him)self into question; the thing dematerialises in an instant into the words it is composed of. Yet Beckett somehow bridges the gap to form things with words and, in turn, those words dissolve them again. The love and hope he presents is fragile, calls us, then retreats. How are we to receive this call? How can we be assured it is there to receive? Perhaps we cannot. It is as though Beckett’s hope in a godless world is as spectral as any attempt at finding that god.

In ‘Enigma and Phenomenon’, Levinas questioned the phenomenological presupposition that the other is necessarily revealed as presence. “To appear”, he wrote

“is forthwith to resemble terms of an already familiar order, to compromise oneself with them, to be assimilated to them. Does not the invisibility of God belong to another game, to an approach which does not polarize into a subject-object correlation but is deployed as a drama with several personages?”

Here, Levinas makes one of his characteristic moves away from the primacy of ontology; in this instance, towards a ‘trace’ suggestive of presence through its withdrawal into absence in a movement which disturbs an order without compromising it. The presence of the other thus becomes that which is insinuated: like the ringing of a doorbell, we might wonder if anyone is really there, and it is for us to take up the call. What I would suggest here is that Beckett poses this question over the materiality and hope he constructs in Molloy at its end. Was it midnight? Was it raining? This is a disturbance we must answer to.

Posted as part of the 1951 Club:


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Ballard and the Experience of Reading

Ballard - DroughtThere’s a well established industry in giving the context to how books are written. It’s perhaps surprising how little attention is given to how books are read. There is a strand of literary criticism that emphasises ‘the role of the reader’, something which emerged from the late-1970s, notably from Barthes and Foucault, as a component to the ‘death of the author’. This standard for studies in communications and media is, however, often a trotted-out abstraction to give enough quotes to show awareness of canonical theory books. ‘Authorship is completed by the reader’ – what might an example of the trope look like? I wondered this as I thought about the manifold contexts in which I’ve just read J G Ballard’s The Drought.

The novel dramatises a world in which a film of human-made gunk has formed on the oceans and stopped them from evaporating to form clouds and rain. I started reading it while commuting. This seems a typically Ballardian setting. It seemed unlikely that my early morning rural travel companions were familiar with the way that Ballard showed what everything we take for granted might look like when falling to pieces. The very reliability of a bus; the descent into animality that’s an infrastructural collapse away – all of this insulated from them as they listened to their downloads, or stared out of the window to go over insecurities that could be luxurious when compared to Ballard’s thought experiments in the unthinkable.

Ballard - SundaeBy the weekend I had ventured to the beach. After a tiring first week in my new job, I decided that I needed to get more exercise to help not only with my health in general, but also to make the week’s demands more doable. Soon I was reading about Ballard’s protagonists surviving along a coastline that moved further from the land as the sea receded in drought. I thought about order as a species of disorder. Then a code mod for the AI in my writing software just popped into my head. Ballard’s collaged landscapes are a part of my daydreams about cutting up worlds made of words in order to reassemble them with code into alien worlds that seem oddly familiar. I moved on from this to a nut sundae. Then I watched normality unfolding at the seaside. Wet children shivered under towels. Dogs excitedly chased tennis balls and each other.

Ballard - Woodland

Ballard - CasualtyBy Sunday, I took a diversion on a woodland walk to have a pee. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Unfortunately, as I found a discreet spot, I fell backwards into thorny undergrowth. I twisted away from it as I landed. Walking away from the scene, I just knew something was wrong. I cut the walk short and my partner helped me get to the general hospital. This bus journey saw me as a spectacle. I was a stranger walking in unspecified distress. The casualty department whisked me in as a priority patient – suspected spinal. Ballard - TerminalA team of 3 staff manoeuvred me for inspections, causing the kinds of noises from me that you hear from survivors of car crashes on TV documentaries. I continued with my copy of The Drought as I was sedated, tested and then X-rayed.

I managed to finish the book today. My memory of it is fragmented by the Codeine and Diazepam in my drug cocktail  My attempts to write this post were fragmented into bouts of alternately sitting and pacing as I tried to get fit to return to work and, yes, that normality again. How desirable its absence makes it. So my context of reading The Drought can be described similarly to its back-cover puff: ‘surrealist flourishes only heighten the atmosphere’ (Guardian). I think of this surrealism as a set of themes that form a kind of poetry that resembles a list. How do I understand the sequence of events surrounding the book’s reading without trying to structure them? Ballard - InterviewsAnd then – ‘His fantasies are explored with a maniac’s logic’ (New Statesman). I think back to my list of tips for writing a Ballard novel. Ballard himself had lists, collecting materials so he could organise the modern world only to destroy it in his fiction. As a rejoinder to the context industry for writing, maybe there could be accounts of reading contexts like the above – interviews with readers of a specific author.

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Cauliflower as a Surrealist Device

“As long as we are victims of habit we are slaves to Vice. I advise you to begin by giving up cauliflower. I notice you have an inordinated appetite for this vegetable, your reigning passion, in fact, Greed.”

Mrs. Gambit must have seen me steal a small branch of boiled cauliflower during the morning tasks in the kitchen. I must be more careful, I thought, nodding my head.

The Hearing Trumpet’s fantastical qualities are perhaps fêted in a way that overshadows the use of mundanity. A vegetable such as cauliflower is transformed into something with new significance. So too is the setting. How many novels are set in retirement homes with strong-willed and slightly paranoid women as lead characters? Carrington fused the real with its other to arrive at horizons that shift the moment you settle on them. Even the buildings are described apparently unreliably, and all the more enchanted for it, so that you can’t be sure if they really amount to a castle, as though the possibility and its uncertainty are somehow better.


Thanks again to Roughghost’s review for putting me on to this book. Bought for £10.95 from Cogito Books, Hexham.

What I find particularly unexpected about the above extract is that it may have contributed to Éric Chevillard’s The Author and Me, a book entirely based on a (one-way) conversation about a loathing for cauliflower gratin. In another apparent Carringtonism, a 40-page footnote is a bestiary comprised of an ant and an anteater. The manoeuvre that both Carrington and Chevillard pull off is that while you know you’re actually sitting and reading something patently absurd, you know that they knew exactly what they were doing when writing it, which is to say, acknowledging your presence and attention in reading theirs. There’s something in this of a wink.

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Print Book Cover in Progress


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