Occasional blog of
Tobias Revell

Valerian, Floreal, 228; Nothing much

Part of the reason I haven't posted for the last two weeks is that Blogger has a had a redesign (thank God) but not a good one (oh). I literally couldn't find the 'new post' button last week. They've changed it for '+' in a new place. I'm also typing into a box that has no boundaries so it's very hard to get a sense of space. Here, let me show you. Oh, I can't because the new image upload system fails to load and of course it doens't allow for drag and drop. Well, what a brave new world. Some words then...

I've been trying to get back into 500 words a day on the PhD after some time being distracted by other things. In theory this is a good idea but what I need to do right now is cut down rather than add up and that's frustratingly difficult to do when Scrivener only recognises adding words rather than editing them. I want that happy chime that says I've done my target! Anyway, a happy consequence of working from home is I've managed (so far) to keep my Thursdays and Fridays a little clearer to focus on other things and do some teaching. I've been delivering basically the core of my PhD as lectures to various folks which has been nice practice to work through various arguments. 

As part of teaching I also put together a pretty extensive and rigorous (and still growing) Blender workshop on our virtual learning environment - Moodle. This was also an opportunity to get to grips with these things with an eye to the fact that we'll be delivering education in a much more blended way for the forseeable. Some students are testing them out now so it'll be interesting to see the results. 

My working habits have also shifted quite a bit, little things like I'm using a notebook again for the first time since I was a student to being much more disciplined about time. It all feels better but as ever I'm conscious of the privilege of not having to really support anyone else (apart from Mrs Revell who is generally perfectly capable of supporting herself.) 

Speculative blah blah...

I was going to say something about some of the recent conversations I've been in and privy to to do with speculative design. I've decided against it because it's a topic that's just not worth re-treading. Everything that can be said has been said and was finished in about 2014. 

This wasn't a very good post for two weeks' break. I have lots of paperwork to do and it tends to dull the mind. 

Love you, 


Fougère, Floréal, 228; Ferns and maths

Today we celebrate the fern. I have two ferns which I'm with right now. I will pass on your best wishes on this auspicious day. I don't have any notes lined up today. I've been pouring writing time into the thesis and into a chapter I'm writing with Kristina Andersen. We're writing about machines and imaginations and all the dimensions of that using a very absurd categorisation system. It's due in May 1st (like a lot of things, there must be some statistical analysis about how most 'arbitrary' deadlines are all the same) so we're in the home stretch. It's good, I'm really happy with it.

Apart from that I'm on the thesis. I'm not where I want to be with it really. I got the methodology done which Wes gave very positive feedback on. I'm currently writing up Augury. I want to use some projects I've done and will do as lynch pins of certain sets of ideas. Augury is a lot about the metaphorical languages around inscrutable technologies like machine learning so I'm using it as a kind of vortex for that. The text in that 'chapter' is currently at about 9000 words and I want to bring it down to about 4000 but there's still so much to say. When do you stop? I try and read one thing everyday, a chapter, an essay a paper and that just adds to all the things I want to say.

Anyway, working on that will be the weekend having finished off the chapter with Kristina on Friday.

I've been cycling loads more, taking the opportunity of good weather and quiet roads to get my muscle memory back. Waking up at about six, doing some calisthenics and then going out for about two hours.

Thing on the Internet

Everyone's doing loads of things now (like livestreams, festivals, initiatives and events) and I was reflecting on this this morning next to the problem of taking our entire university online over the last three weeks. That kind of freneticism is exhausting, we'll run out of generosity and then things will get ugly. I'm writing from a position of enormous privilege but is the drive to ramp up activity with this crisis the same logic as that of capitalist exploitation? I don't know. I just worry that yeah, we burn out on generosity and then things get really ugly. I'm going to revisit the salvage stuff more, it makes more sense to me as a crisis response. 

Channel Recommendation

Oh I have loads lined up. YouTube is a goldmine right now. I'm going to re-recommend Numberphile again. Which is just a great maths channel. I now know why adding up all the possible whole numbers gives you -1/12

Lilas, Germinal, 228; I'm sorry, I don't know, I'll find out and quarantine cooking

Today we celebrate the lilac. There's not much to say this week. I've been beavering away (I also now know what a busy beaver is) at various bits and bobs.

A lot folks say they feel helpless amidst a landscape of grand projects, initiatives and ideas. Looking out on our own media plateau of designers, critics, digital artists and institutions I can empathise. Folks with the social capital to do live-streamed studio talks or big design investigations and interventions are helping us feel that we can do something to hold society together or even become more resilient while the medical scientists, doctors and nurses do the real hard work of keeping us alive. But some folks are just focussed on holding the everyday together.

So, increasingly, the moral position of these projects is rightly checked: Is it right to seize the opportunism of having (literally), captive audiences, intellectual and cultural capital and put it to your use? Is it right to insist that life won't go back to normal and society requires some sort of doctrinal redesign? Is it right to tell people they're existentially responding to crisis incorrectly? (That last one's an easy one.) I'm reminded a little bit of my old musings on Hirschman's Exit, Voice Loyalty as crisis responses; escaping to an alternative, speaking up and advocating change or sticking with it.

Hirschman's framework didn't really allow for just being in crisis. This is forgivable as it was mostly about commercial exchanges but is indicative of a need to categorise and critique response. It's interesting to see this shift a little bit in the media discourse; there's a call to be honest about the uncertainty and that the goalposts will shift and that we aren't ready.

I suspect we're in a sort of honeymoon of generosity; everything's new and challenging and feels powerful (remember 2008?). We've just been given the brief; it's tough and treacherous but there are possibilities, the rules of the Before World are more malleable; yet to ossify into a new pattern of exploitation that capitalises on the generosity of its cultural and creative actors. I hope it's just my cynicism and I hope there are some folks out there working out how to sustain this flurry of activity over the foreseeable future. But how long before some dark pattern-er at Instagram figures out how to turn all these livestreams into a new revenue stream. How long before some big tech firm starts IP trolling all these creative technologists developing open source worlds? We've already got tax breaks for millionaires and punitive abortion laws being pushed through while we're all locked away, why wouldn't you find a way to make money out of all this generosity?

Hell, maybe I'm too cynical. Maybe the network pattern will change, maybe it never ossifies.

My work ethic is centred on the idea that you have to do what's in front of you as best as possible. Most of that isn't glorious or tweetable or exciting. It's just responding to terrified folks with as much comfort as you can offer or finding out who to ask questions of, or making sure boring papaerwork is done so that folks can focus on more important things. Or just being honest that you don't know what will happen and owning that uncertainty. I've written 'I don't know, I'm sorry, but I'll find out' more than any other single sentence in the last few weeks. My busy beaver's own two states 'I don't know' - 'I'll find out.'

Ugh onto cheerier things. I will use some of this meagre platform to promote what other folks are up to a bit more explicitly. I've already been doing this on Instagram more. I love IG stories but do you think I should use the photos for more work stuff or keep with images I find pleasant?

  • Fictional Journal are sharing reading lists from folks. Look at this lineup of champions: Tamar Shafrir, Sofia Pia, Matylda  Krzyowski. You'd be a fool not to. It's all available up on their Instagram
  • Danah Abdullah has started a newsletter; the Pessoptimist. It promises to meter out cynicism which is very groovy. I'm still not turning this into a newsletter unless you tell me to.
  • Live Talks From are still going with daily talks from graphic designers. Again, Instagram
  • Another Instagram. Some very funny, very smart student at Central Saint Martins is putting together a regular flow of memes about student life; GCD memes.
  • I missed Natalie Kane's call with Joanne McNeil last night on Dirty Furniture because I had calls of my own to do but they've been bringing together interesting people. Again. Instagram. (The gentle tinkle of financial opportunity.)

Channel Recommendation

And finally. I've been waiting to publish this one. Nat's What I Reckon is a newish small outfit of a comedian doing opinion pieces on various things but he's recently pivoted into cooking during quarantine and they're A+. As usual, hits my sweet spots, educational and entertaining but with a heavier emphasis on the entertaining. Check out how to make leek and potato soup and ' 'Don't be scared of Leeks, I know they look weird but they're just tall onions.'

Love you, bye.

Radis, Germinal, 228; Animate gynoids and broken keys

Thanks to Crystal for reminding me that the French Republican calendar twitter account (from where I purchased my calendar - the humorously named @sansculotides) tweet the day and associated flora each day so it's a good way of reverse-engineering the date. Today we celebrate the radish. Today we do not celebrate two weeks of the left-hand shift, alt and control keys not working on my keyboard. This is definitely a software problem which might be solved by resetting the SMC if that didn't require exactly those keys. I've run through all the hardware and software fixes I can find without doing that. Basically the only thing left to me now is to factory reset the computer and hope it fixes it, the battery also now lasts about two hours, when video calling, about half an hour and these are not great batteries to replace. So this is all a great time to move everything online.

I've clung on to this 2015 Macbook Pro since I got it (I don't own it, it's a university computer) and have resisted having it replaced, not only for environmental reasons but I genuinely believe late 2015 was the beginning of the end for Apple's generous approach to designing things. The very last vestige of an assumption of a broad constituency of users and uses needing some individual adaptability for multi-purposing. It has usable sockets; USB sockets I use constantly, an SD card slot I admittedly use only occasionally and an HDMI socket I use everyday. I can open up the back and replace the RAM and drive. If this thing is for the knackers yard then I guess it's either finding a refurbed 2015 I can upgrade myself or a PC. I've always liked the design of Thinkpads, but the issues around booting Mac OS on them seems more trouble than it's worth. Long live the late 2015 Macbook Pro and iPhone 5s, the last of Apple's good designs.

Enough prevaricating (one more - remember when new technology was actually exciting, rather than just vaguely disappointing? When we looked at new releases and went 'wow, that's so clever!' rather than 'why have they done that, that's annoying.' Remember when apps were fun? Ugh.) With the caveat to the enormous privilege I have. I've been finding the lockdown remarkably productive. I wake up at the same time everyday, I'm drinking a lot less, I sleep a lot better, I eat a lot better, I'm getting more done. There was always a kind of nascent guilt in getting home after work and just not feeling up to putting in more time on my own research and practice but now I feel more energised. So, what have I been up to with that energy? Looking at words.


I've been reading a bunch of things related to the PhD which have all been useful but some highlights here:

Lev Manovich's What is Digital Cinema? essay from the late nineties in which he writes that the encroachment of (at the time) manual computational techniques like CGI have made (or even possibly returned) cinema to a 'sub-genre of painting'. He argues that we find a kind of resting state of image production in human culture not in attempting to capture photorealism but in creating irreal visions and fantasy through the human hand. He suggests that the modernist drive for photorealism is a blip in this history and CGI and computational animation techniques offer a return to the potential of human imagination and away from the ‘indexical media technology’ of lens-based image capture. I like this idea a lot as in my writing it’s something I’ve struggled to find a viewpoint on; how to contextualise social media, propaganda, cinema, digital art and video games as a single site for designerly enquiry. Rooting them all in some fundamental process of envisioning or fantasising through image production might be a useful stance. Perhaps it’s useful to suggest that they’re all a genre of painting? It’s a quite a teleological, technical view but it’s neat. I like it when things are neat.

I chunked through the Animatic Apparatus by Deborah Levitt, recommended by Joel McKim. Levitt agrees with Manovich's notion that 'animation' as she calls it is the more fundamental form of human artifice, rather than capturing reality. By 'animation' she is not just referring to visual representation but the ways that human make other things animate. She draws extensively on theories around artificial life, from marionettes to gynoids and AI and aesthetic theories of beauty; this is super interesting strategically. In the way I interpreted it, she's trying to do the opposite of just about every other single thing in this area; rather than refining and treading over and over the Uncanny Valley as countless others do to try and pin down where 'animatic' forms become upsetting or alienating, she (again, my interpretation) is trying to define where things fall outside of it and attain beauty, their qualities and why we are drawn to them. This is a more theory-laden take on Alan Warburton's excellent work in this area.

Levitt uses the gynoid dolls from Ghost In The Shell; Innocence as a standing example throughout the text. In fact, a majority of the book is a very thorough analysis of the film, a long-time favourite of mine. I had no idea how many advanced references and complex intertextuality were in it before. In her interpretation, Innocence provides a way of seeing the 'animatic apparatus' as an aspiration for humans rather than the usual representation of animatic forms where they aspire to become human. She contrasts Innocence favourably to Spielberg's A.I. and its Pinnochio story in this regard. The characters in Innocence take cyborgs (in this case advanced, technical ones, I had no idea Donna Haraway was in Innocence, did you?) on their terms; as a kind of being in their own right. She uses some interesting theories on 'vitality forms' – the way that types of movements are precursors to the categorisation of emotions in the minds of infants – to develop this point. Similar, to Manovich, the message is kind of the same; consistently trying to create reality using these tools (the 'apparatus' including social tendencies) is to underestimate the potential of them.

I also finally cracked the spine on Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life since I'm apparently the only person that's never read it. The first chapter was great for my PhD, lots of great theory on how we relate to the future without name dropping philosophers, just some thoughtful insights. I read about half of it this week and did find it incredibly moving. His reflections on culture, music and himself are deep and meaningful and I get why everyone recommends it but it's the music bit I struggle with and knew I would. In lieu of philosophical references I'll never understand, it's riddled with musical references I've never heard of. I had to stop every few paragraphs to bring up a track or artist he was referencing. I think you need to be really into music to immerse yourself in it, or of his generation. Maybe someone's already made a playlist you can listen along to as you read?

Yesterday I picked up Mark Hansen's Feed Forward, read three pages and gave up. There's only so much media theory bogged in inaccessible philosophy I can take and I got bored and wondered off.

Anyway, today I'm DIY-ing the home office. Since we moved in last summer it's basically been the room where everything that has nowhere else to go lives. we were putting off doing it until this summer. But now, since I'm going to be in there everyday for the next however-many-months I've decided to make it presentable and a bit more usable. So, got some shelving and some paint and away we go.

Love you, bye. x

13 Germinal 228; Moths add realism to anything.

Sorry, my French Republican calendar is in my office, where I obviously can't go so I'm having to use a crappy website to guestimate the date. I'm spending my days catching up with my reading and enjoying the peace. I guess it's the thing that's sort of still a bit socially unacceptable; I'm totally fine with social isolation and I'm getting so much done. I spent like a year once not talking to anyone and just playing World of Warcraft so a life behind screens is normal. I haven't been using Zoom (mostly because UAL favours Collaborate and Teams which both work perfectly well). It's sort of selfish of me I suppose to enjoy it. There's a lot of bombastic projects and happenings popping up all the time as folks out of their goodwill seize these times to try and make the best of it and us, especially as many are now in places where their futures look bleaker.

My day pretty much looks like; up at 7 for coffee and some morning exercise, sit in office all day reading, making notes, occasionally dropping in for meetings and bits of UAL work, hit the PlayStation around 5 or 6 (I'm playing Control which I suppose deserves more of a space to write up), cook dinner, eat it, watch YouTube, go to bed. It's great. Next week I'm going to start pulling together all the material for my PhD upgrade from the reading catching up I'm doing. This morning I want to re-do all the tags on my extensive Evernote library which has all the papers, articles and notes of the research in. Before I was going for really specific tags like 'Computation and imagination (future)' but then you get like one thing come up. I found Evernote has the ability to cross-reference so I can change that to three separate tags ('Computation', 'imagination' and 'future') and then just select all three for articles that feature all three. I've then got Mark Hansen's Fast Forward to take a crack at.

Channel Recommendation

Lazy Tutorials for lazy people by lazy people; Blender tutorials by Ian Hubert. There's twenty of them, they're each a minute long, they're pretty funny and they show you some neat technical and stylistic tricks in Blender. If you've got some experience in Blender you can probably use these, just pause them on screenshots to see what he's doing, I definitely got new stuff from them. Anyway, whole playlist is here and here's one about moths. 'Model a moth, moths are pure chaos so don't stress too much... But can we teach them to love?' Even if you're not into Blender they're nice ways of showing you what's possible with objectively quite simple techniques.

Love you, bye.