The Next Day at Ten

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of The Next Day, a Bowie album that was unexpected when it arrived—and which has inevitably been overshadowed by the one that followed, Blackstar. I’m really fond of it.

Chris O’Leary’s blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, has long been the first place I turn to for writing on Bowie. His retrospective on the album doesn’t disappoint:

As time spools on, the scaffolding drops away. It always does. There was a context that we no longer have for Young Americans—how a diehard Ziggy Stardust fan felt when he heard Bowie doing “soul.” How the soul Bowie fan felt when she first put on Low. How someone who loved Low felt when she first heard “Let’s Dance” on the radio, knowing Bowie was no longer hers. How a kid who only knew Bowie through “Let’s Dance” felt when he saw Bowie sing “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” on Letterman.

The privilege of a point in time is to experience something in a way that everyone who comes later can only approximate. The mistake is to think this will matter. Like a gambling house, the future always wins.

Blue Ice

Reading list: March 10th

Heavy Squall off the Start Lighthouse. John Brett, A.R.A., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Since its creation, the coin had possessed a curious quality, a weight greater than its mass, and a worth beyond its face value. It had a way of changing lives.” Alexander Huls tells the tale of the big coin heist in Hazlitt.

“‘There’s a worldwide inventory of disks that were manufactured 10 or 20 or 30 years ago,’ Persky says. ‘That inventory is fixed. We’re just blowing through it day by day.'” Wired’s Jacopo Prisco looks at the persistence of the floppy disk.

“It’s pretty nice out there. It’s quiet, the view is spectacular. The storms are incredible, but you have to consider, you know, we’ve maintained a light station there since 1832. So they really got it down pat.” Grand Manan’s Ken Ingersoll talks to the CBC about landing one of the few remaining lighthouse keeper jobs.

“He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us.” Robin Sloan reads Christopher Tolkein’s History of the Lord of the Rings and realizes just how much of the magic of J.R.R. Tolkein’s books arose from the revision.

“We’re losing a Hubble-telescope-type capability that we had for five decades.” An ocean-drilling ship that’s driven landmark research will be retired next year, Nature reports

Building a writer-focused collaboration tool

Collaborative tools like Google Docs are inescapable for writers, and often invaluable. But they also create problems you don’t have to contend with when you’re working alone in a simple word processor. Upwelling is a new project that aims to address some of those issues (finally), and make online collaboration more writer-focused. It’s developed by Ink & Switch, an independent research lab that says one of the problems they’re trying to solve is the “fishbowl effect” inherent in so much real-time collaboration:

Several writers we talked to wanted a tool that would allow them to work in private, with no other collaborators reading their work in progress. Intermediate drafts aren’t always suitable to share, even with collaborators, and feedback on those drafts can be unwelcome or even embarrassing. In addition, some writers are troubled by the idea that their senior co-workers and management may be monitoring them – an unintended negative side effect of real-time collaboration.

Real-time collaboration becomes even more intrusive when others not only watch what a writer is typing but even start editing or commenting on the writer’s work before it is complete. Some of our interviewees reported asking collaborators to close the document and not make edits or comments while they were working. Others reported copying and pasting the entire document into a new file, working there in private, and then pasting the edited text back into the original editor window when finished.

The last bit is what I usually end up doing—especially if I’m working on a lengthy draft with lots of changes—but there are clearly better ways to do things if the tools would allow it.

There’s a demo of Upwelling available, but Ink & Switch seems to be hoping it will spark the development of other tools, rather than evolve into a finished product itself. Tantalizingly, they say “an ideal implementation would offer a file format or exchange protocol that makes it possible for writers to use the writing software of their choice to create documents while offering support for Upwelling features.”

Marcin Wichary’s typewriter simulator

Marcin Wichary is the author of a forthcoming book about the history of keyboards, Shift Happens, and he’s now put together a great little typewriter simulator as part of the project. If you can get one, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as hammering out a few words on a real typewriter—especially after you’ve found yourself staring at a blank page on a computer screen for a little too long—but this is about as close a substitute as you’ll find.

New music: Ron Sexsmith, The Vivian Line

I always look forward to a new Ron Sexsmith album—something that’s thankfully a regular occurrence. The Vivian Line is his 17th, and another gem. You often hear his music described with words like “effortless” and “unassuming,” and this album is maybe the purest example yet of that feeling. It’s a perfect dozen songs, none that stretch much over three minutes, and some that barely cross the two-minute mark.

The Vivian Line is the second album Sexsmith has recorded since moving from Toronto to small town Stratford, Ontario as part of a mini exodus of artists in recent years, and there’s a sense of ruralness to the album that extends beyond the cover photo and more obvious nods like the song “Barn Conversion.” The rich arrangements and instrumentation—Sexsmith and producer Brad Jones describe the sound as “baroque pop”— add a warmth to the record, and there’s a depth revealed on repeat listens, which the conciseness of it all invites you to do.

Reading list: February 16th

“I don’t know if you know this: I have played table tennis literally every day since October 3, 2012.” Will Shortz talks to The New Yorker.

“Back in 2013, the English Wikipedia page titled ‘List of cryptids’ had about 300 entries…Since then, a few Wikipedia volunteers have proceeded to take a hatchet to the list, developing a far more limited inclusion criteria for what meets the cryptid definition.” Slate columnist Stephen Harrison examines why Wikipedia is so tough on Bigfoot.  

“When the song was over, I exclaimed: ‘What was that?'” Carole King on Burt Bacharach.

“4. The antidote to procrastination is REHEARSAL, writing it in your head. 5. The antidote to writer’s block is lowering your standards. You can raise them later.” Roy Peter Clark distills decades of writing advice.

“Spaceship mechanic, Christmas angel, FBI agent, Paul the Apostle, Rip Van Winkle, Molly Ringwald’s dad. Plug him in anywhere and he works.” J.D. O’Brien takes a brief tour through Harry Dean Stanton’s always-rewarding filmography.

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson has a new book coming out this fall. The Mysteries (pictured above) is illustrated by John Kascht, who’s said to have spent “several years” working on it with Watterson. “Both artists abandoned their past ways of working, inventing images together that neither could anticipate.”

Gediz Vallis, Mars

From NASA:

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used its Mastcam to capture this mosaic of Gediz Vallis on Nov. 7, 2022, the 3,646th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. In the center of the valley in this image is a pile of boulders and debris that may have been swept there by flowing water billions of years ago.

Baseball approaches

Blue Jays spring training schedule

I think I watched more baseball than I ever have last season, and it all ended in crushing disappointment. And… I’m counting down the days until it all starts over again. Because baseball.

Apart from confirming the spring training schedule above, Sportsnet also announced that it’s making live radio broadcasts for every Blue Jays game available on its app and website for the first time this season. Hopefully that’s an indication of at least some renewed commitment to radio, after a brief dalliance with relying only on a simulcast of the TV broadcast.