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Journal archives: August

February 12, 2004

Floppy Disks

The new year brings thoughts once more of buying a DVD-writer, if only to try and reduce the hundreds of cd-roms piled around the flat. I should really go through them and sort out the data, but it's too boring to contemplate. On the other hand, if I had a DVD-burner, the task would be more exciting as I'd be playing with my new toy. At least that's how I think of it. What I also must do at some point is weed out all the other media storage formats that I've collected over the years. In historical order - there's the huge pile of disks from the halcyon years of my Atari ST usage (everything from diary fragments to layout pages for Pagan News); the few large 'bendy' five-and-a-quarter inchers from my first PC; a sprinkling of Mac disks from when I worked at Psychic News; and of course shedloads of 3.5" PC floppies. As if all that wasn't enough, there's the other stuff. An old DAT tape cartridge - I've no idea what's on it. Several cartridges from a Sysquest 40 unit. A cartridge marked "MAX OVERLOAD" from a 1 Gig Sysquest drive that I never quite trusted; and a few unmarked zip disks. Who knows what possible lost or forgotten treasure is lurking within all those frozen bytes? Years of diary fragments? Old bits of writing? Early experiments in hypermedia or animation? This is why I'm loath to just consign them to landfill. And just looking at them brings up memories. Picking up a creased 5.25" disk, I'm reminded of the night my 286 crashed. It ran a German version of DOS, and I spent a frantic evening phoning Maria up (she'd not moved over from Hannover back then) and reading out German error messages to her. She had to consult a computer-owning friend, and then call me back. And so it went the whole evening, until I managed to get the bloody thing up and running again. Here's an Atari floppy labelled "Gunship". The first game that I really really became obsessed with. Burning my eyes out at 3am playing on Janet's 24" colour TV after a day of page layouts. Interesting how these old bits of plastic can invoke such powerful memories, even without loading them up. It's not the same with cds tho' - they're somehow 'bland'.

I suppose I should just chuck the lot out. I lugged the Atari around for years, and finally left it behind when we moved away from Brixton, as a surprise gift for the next tenant. That felt like a bit of a betrayal, but after all, the ST has had adventures before (I used to loan it out to touring bands occasionally) so perhaps its enjoying a new life somewhere.

Memories are one thing. Actually looking back at old stuff is quite different. A few weeks back, in the midst of an online forum discussion about personal experiences with a particular magical schema, I thought it best to check my memories of doing something with what I actually wrote in my magical diaries, some twenty-odd years ago. Brrr. I found what I was looking for, but it was kind of weird, reading those entries and finding out just how intense, tight, and naive I was back then. There was the odd surprise. I found a laborious freehand drawing of a Sri Yantra - something I'd find difficult to do nowadays, and some not bad bits of artwork. But my old habit of referring to various people either by their initials or by magical scripts (Passing the river? I forget) was really irritating, as by now I have no idea who those people were. Well, that's something the biographers (just kidding) can worry about.

February 09, 2004

She who plays

Sunday. A very pleasant spot of Lalita Puja round at Gauri's place, followed by a convivial Thai meal in Tottenham. It's really nice to work with a group of people who are familiar with the puja form and relaxed with each other enough to extemporise on-the-spot. And slip things in, without breaking the tranquility of the moment. Sometimes, in a group ritual, you get those agonising 'moments' when it's collectively realised that something's been omitted and there's a kind of tension that can quickly build before the flow picks up again. Rather like forgetting to pass the port at a formal dinner. When people who know the forms, and (perhaps more importantly,) know each other do ritual together, I tend to find there's moments of synchronicity. As we wound down from doing the mantra-japas on Sunday, I suddenly thought "We didn't do any nyasa" and, glancing round, saw that some of those present were actually doing nyasa at that very moment.

With this sort of approach to ritual I feel one needs to have a good grounding in the structure to be able to throw in a bit of freestyle. Tantric ritual has a kind of 'modular' approach (at least that's how I was 'taught' it) in that you can start off with something fairly simple and then keep on adding bits in as you come to understand them. So I am back reading (and meditating on) the Lalitasahasranama - the thousand names of Lalita. I have two translations of this particular work. The first dates from the 19th Century, and is rather odd - the translator keeps referring to Cupid when it's obvious he means Kama - perhaps this is a sop to his presumed anglicised readership? The other is more comprehensive, with some useful commentaries on the Sanskrit verses. I tend to flit between the two, and am toying with the idea of writing my own commentary on the verses. Having said that, I tend to enjoy the verses of Lalitasahasranama as sheer poetry:

She who causes a myriad of worlds to arise and disappear with the opening and closing of her eyes.[281]

Beautiful. I sometimes do a simple Lalita devotion in the mornings, so by the time I'm standing at the station, waiting for the 07.25am to London Bridge, I find I get 'flashes' of Lalita welling up from within. She's "everywhere"; in the rustling of tree branches; in the rumble of the arriving train on platform two; in the shared moment with the fellow-traveller next to me as we share a wry smile at the announcement that our train is going to be delayed (again).

There's a rather paradoxical relationship between text and practice here. One could, arguably, use the Lalitasahasranama as a complete 'ritual manual', but unless one does the practice, the verses aren't going to make much sense, so the Lalitasahasranama keeps its "secrets" from the non-practitioner. Similarly, I tend to use selections from the text during puja in their English translation, but I find that it's useful to meditate on the Sanskrit if only because that the Sanskrit has a zillion more nuances than the English renderings. Douglas Renfrew Brooks for example, in one of his two books on Sri Vidya (I think its Auspicious Wisdom) has a section discussing 42 variant meanings of the term Kula alone.

I've been 'working' Lalita's magic for a couple of years now, and am still only at an early stage. At this rate it's going to be a few more years before I've absorbed enough to do the full-scale Sri Yantra puja. But at the moment I'm quite happy to sidle up to it fairly slowly. This in itself is worthy of reflecting on - the idea that I'm going to spend possibly years preparing myself for a particular ritual practice. That's okay, I'm in no hurry.

February 03, 2004

How I became a Geek

Reading Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web puts me into a reflective mood about computers, and the way they've become increasingly important in my life. This is easily done, here in my office, where there's three of the things: the Apple Mac G4 with its 21" screen where magazines get put together, and the Pentium IV on which text files are marked up and powerpoint slides are carefully (but I will admit, not always lovingly) transformed into eps files; not forgetting the Server, the keeper of the company's files, into which I have to slide a brick-like tape at the end of each working day. And three floors below me, the Unix box which handles all the email, and patiently logs all websites visited and keeps our network invisible to all the lurking horrors out there on the worldwide web. This is my empire.

My first brush with computers was at Huddersfield Poly of all places. A huge thing, squatting in a basement, virtually incomprehensible to me at the time. We had to feed it punch cards, and weeks later, a huge pile of tractor-feed paper would turn up in my pigeonhole - statistical outputs for whatever project I was running. I hated it - not so much the computer itself, but its outputs, which I could never make much sense of. I liked the seeming elegance of statistical theory, but not the statistics themselves. I didn't see another computer until - I think it was 1984, when a guy turned up at the place I was staying with a ZX81 and wowed various people. I hadn't worked on my inner geek and remained decidedly unimpressed with it. Three years later though, they started to put the hook in me, and strangely enough it was Huddersfield again! This time, I was doing an Occupational Therapy placement at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. Really awful, for the most part, as I'd pretty much decided by then that whatever I did want to do with my life career-wise, it wasn't going to be as an OT. Apart from snogging one of my tutors in the cark park after my leaving do, the only other high point was getting to use the depts' computer. I seem to remember this as an Acorn, but it ran touch-screen programs for assessing various neurological dysfunctions, and altogether seemed to be a quantum jump either from the ZX81 or the creature in the depths of the Poly.

In 1988 I bought my first computer, courtesy of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme and Hannibal the Cannibal who lent me the qualifying grand or so I needed to get on it. It was an Atari ST, with a whole half megabyte of RAM! I forget exactly what my EAS business was, but it's entirely possible that some kind of Database was involved. That's not important. This beige slab changed my life dramatically in other ways, some more subtle than others. The big thing was DTP - just starting to break then. I hocked some 'precious things' and scored a copy of Timeworks DTP. That led to Northern PaganLink News, to be followed by Pagan News, various chapbooks, and not to mention the odd bit of income from doing catalogues, curry house menus, rave flyers and so forth. Why, I even typeset an album sleeve for Chumbawumba though I cannot recall which one (they did my printing for years). It was through the Atari that I met my first GEEKS. The Atari geeks. One of them lived just up the road from me. His room was always FULL of floppy disks; great tottering stacks of them. Floppy disks drinks coasters; floppy disks stuck to the ceiling. I'd ask him if he just happened to have a word processing application, and he'd rifle around in one of the messier stacks and flip an unlabelled disk in my direction. At home, it'd turn out to be a 3D modelling program or the 2nd disk of a German RAM doubler. The Geeks, by and large, just hoarded programs. They never actually used them. Fairly soon they'd start turning up with a stack of disks asking me to "find out" what they did. And I think it was this, rather than anything else, which turned me towards geekdom; the interest in fiddling with programs. Of actually reading a manual from time to time, and in the absence of any such thing, trying to come up with some documentation. And all this fiddling about came back to haunt me years later as I found myself building databases, running networks, and debugging kernel32 errors and wondering "why?"

It was also around this time that I had my first look at the internet - probably in a squat in Leeds 6 - what sticks out though is the 'memory' of garish text on a screen - pixilated headers announcing a BBS. I knew I was witnessing the dawn of something momentous. A few months later, my mate Rodney bought himself an Amstrad PPC (two floopy disk drives!) and with the aid of a phone coupler, we were nosing around Christian BBS's, watching the first stirrings of the Satanic Child Abuse mania sliding its way over from the USA. In these days of massive amounts of occult verbiage on the web, I recall back in the late '80s how none of the folk I knew were that interested. Rodney made the fatal mistake of turning up to a Pagan conference with his PPC under his arm, and if that wasn't enough, we compounded our error by suggesting that PaganLink set up a system of BBS's for letting people know (quickly) what was going on. Not many takers at the time, but now no one really thinks twice about setting up a website, or at least, few would object on the grounds that a COMPUTER is involved.

Thinking back on those days, I was clearly in love without knowing it.

Do occultists make good geeks, or vice versa? T'other week, sitting in a pub in Stoke Newington, talking to Joel B (whom I'd just met) about the perils of using Pagemaker for outputting PDFs. I gradually become aware of some grinning and finger-pointing going on in my peripheral vision. It's John & Jim, both somewhat amused that we're discussing file formats, rather than something more esoteric. Well, let's face it, it's not that difficult to discuss occult matters, but how many people can you share a relaxing drink with and have a pleasant conversation with regarding the pros and cons of different versions of Postscript? It puts me in mind of a party at Paul's some years ago. The conversation turned to databases. Probably 'cos I was being 'consulted' at the time by the MDs as to whether or not to choose a bespoke Filemaker Pro build or to go for Access. As it turned out, given the preponderence of Mac-users in the room, there were cries of "Filemaker Pro, no doubt about it!" And this was quite uplifting for me, in a way, almost like coming out to a group of friends and finding out that there are others just like you. Now I've made this admission, I will also reveal that I have a Claris T-shirt somewhere; a memory of the couple of years I spent building Filemaker databases as part of my day-to-day work. There's something oddly comforting about building a database. I digress. Geeks. Occultists. Let's face it, few people want to know about the intricacies of say, the symbolism of the heart in 12th century Kashmir Shaivism. Actually, fewer people want to know the differences between Mac and PC ASCII either, but at least the latter is, well I suppose, practical in some way. But it's probably the same collection of neurons governing both bits of data. I meditate on the heart-cave and I feel more 'alive'; I spend a couple of hours drawing up an ASCII conversion chart for the journalists next door (let's face it, some of them can barely work their PCs so are they really going to use it? I think not) and I can feel my nerves dancing.