Interconnected

Filtered for sexy animals (headphones required)

1.

Orangina commercials. Watch at least until the forest one. File under "sexy animals."

This message brought to you by today's trailer for the movie Cats.

2.

The Popular Science Monthly, May 1877, "On the habits of ants" by Sir John Lubbock:

Landois is of [the] opinion that ants also make sounds in the same way [by rubbing their abdominal rings against another], though these sounds are inaudible to us. Our range is, however, after all, very limited, and the universe is probably full of music which we cannot perceive.

Emphasis mine. Source.

3.

The sound of dial-up internet, decoded: what each segment of beeps, ping-pong, and static is doing and what it means.

Also: A short video of opera singers dubbed with modem noises.

4.

My life has not been the same since I learnt that famously-silent giraffes are not in fact mute.

At midnight, in the pitch black, the neck becomes like a pipe organ, and they do this crazy deep ethereal HUMMING. Not kidding:

Listen to the video embedded here. (And read the paper.)

All I can think of is Palaeolithic humans on the African plains, it's the dead of night, and they're just bathing in this all-pervasive ASMR-inducing hum, the giraffes' 14 Hz infrasound skewering the soul, the dark savannah as a nightly cathedral with no walls and for its roof the eternal stars.

A lengthy ramble through many responses to that FaceTime Attention Correction tweet

The latest beta of iOS 13 came out, and there’s a feature called FaceTime Attention Correction which, on video calls, silently manipulates the image of your face so that you’re looking the other person directly in the eye. Which on first blush to me sounded cool (eye contact is good! Maybe?) but on further thought made me do a weird face.

(Currently the camera and the screen are slightly offset, so even when you’re looking at the picture of the other person, the camera sees your eyes as looking slightly away — and so they see you as looking slightly away.)

So I tweeted about the new feature with some hyperbole: Whoa. iOS 13 will ARTIFICIALLY RE-POINT YOUR EYEBALLS in video calls so you're looking right at the other person instead of where you're actually looking, which is the screen. Hey Apple, so long as we're doing this, how about fixing my hair and maybe also the bags under my eyes — which is how you have to talk now to get RTs. (As at this moment: 140 retweets and 383 likes.)

Some responses and my thoughts follow:

J. Rosembaum:

This is kind of amazing and I think it is really well done, But as an autistic person I also find it discomfiting. One of the reasons I like video calls is that there is no expectation to meet the other persons eye.

This was one of several responses from an autistic perspective, and the concern really resonates with me. Phones have become pretty much mandatory at this point to participate in society, and for them to subtly prefer a particular model of self — that’s all kinds of problematic.

I very much do not want to live in a world which discriminates against or erases different ways of being.


Mary Hamilton:

From an autistic perspective, this is just a whole deeply visceral world of “nope”.

Please do not edit my online communication style to make it more neurotypical, I already have to do that enough in meatspace, thanks

Consent is another issue: sure “Attention Correction” is a setting you can turn on and off, but if everyone does it, will it really be an option?

And what about the consent of the other? Is there an icon to show that they’re speaking with an “attention corrected” person, or one that has their hair computationally styled, or their voice enhanced to sound more persuasive? Etc.


Rebecca Reeve Henderson:

You know Zoom has a pretty filter? Your skin will look dewy fresh.

(Zoom being the business world’s new hotness in terms of video conferencing. Which is fair because it’s great.)

It’s important to remember that Attention Correction exists on a spectrum of image correction. But the Zoom pretty filter came as a surprise to me — I’m pretty sure I knew about it once, but it hadn’t seemed important enough to remember.

So perhaps what’s happened is I had mentally categorised video calls as a whole as “unmediated” and Attention Correction is reminding me that it they are very much mediated — more fool me for forgetting I guess — and we will have to develop personal skills and social norms to tell authentic and inauthentic apart?

We’ve gone through this process in, for example, email: “real” emails are text only, from our friends, don’t have a sig. “Unreal” emails use placeholder names, sales-y language, graphics, have an unsubscribe footer, etc. Our expectations for “real” include polite correspondence, turn-taking, no hidden agenda, for example. When these categories are violated, such as the recent fuss regarding the highly funded Superhuman email client which includes hidden tracking images, i.e. applying standard “unreal” email norms to “real” email conversations, outrage results.

We have similar tells — some enforced by regulation, and some that we develop through critical thinking — with TV. There’s a difference between programming and adverts, for example. In programming, there’s a difference between fiction and reality TV. And even with reality TV, we have language to discuss and understand exactly how real it is. What’s that phrase? Structured reality.

So from this perspective, maybe what Attention Correction represents is that this kind of mediation of realtime video is inevitable, and what we need is enough cues and tells and shared language to build up our categorisation instincts.


Seb Potter:

Prediction: within 3 years you won't even need the camera to make video calls.

Enough training to match my intonation to the expressions of my Memoji, and yes — all the pieces are there.


Tom Stuart:

In case you’re interested, gaze correction has been a long-running project for Microsoft Research, e.g. link

I hadn’t seen the particular research Tom points out, but because of my digging around Glancing back in the day, I have folders full of papers about computers and gaze…

One paper that particularly comes to mind is Ishii and Minoru (1992), ClearBoard: A Seamless Medium for Shared Drawing and Conversation with Eye Contact, CHI ’92. In this work, two collaborators were linked over a shared screen and a video conference. The video call was presented, translucent, overlaid on the shared desktop screen and applications, and reflected.

The result being that you can see where the other person is looking at on the desktop, and they can see where you’re looking too: that is, when they look at a picture on their version of the shared desktop, their gaze on your desktop points at the very same picture. And in the study, this greatly improved ability to work together.

From the paper:

The importance of eye-contact is often discussed in the design of face-to-face communication tools, However, we believe the concept of gaze awareness is more generalized and is a more important notion. Gaze awareness lets a user know what the partner is looking at, the user’s face or anything else on the shared workspace. If the partner is looking at you, you can know it. If the partner is gazing at an object in the shared workspace, you can know what the object is. Eye contact can be seen as just a special case of gaze awareness.

We think the notion of gaze awareness will be an important goal of the next generation of shared drawing tools. It can not be easily obtained in conventional meeting environments, and only CSCW [Computer Supported Cooperative Work] technology can provide it.

There is a ton of research into the gaze from the time, and — like the term CSCW itself — we’ve lost momentum bringing this into the user interface. We’re still in the era of the Personal Computer. The “collaborative” aspect of computing remains (to me) only a thin veneer on the PC. And the challenges we face in the future will only be met by working together…

It’s not just work, it’s all kinds of communication. In real world groups, gaze is used to request priority or give way. Visibility of the gaze of others directs group attention (another recently under-studied area).

So I’m excited because it feels like we’re opening up collaboration, gaze awareness, and group attention once more.

However: I’m uncomfortable with the re-writing of the gaze as performed by the Attention Correction feature. I would feel considerably happier about it if there was a camera behind the screen so the result was meaningful gaze awareness without the post-truth undermining of “real” video.

Despite my discomfort… the possibilities of eye contact in video! I would love to see a simplified reimplementation of ClearBoard from that paper, only using FaceTime. For example, could two people have a shared space as if we were both drawing on the glass window of the screen? This would work incredibly well on the screen of the iPad.

Or… Could we make a translucent FaceTime call, to allow for gaze awareness, and overlay on it a Google Doc, so we could discuss paragraphs with the non-verbal cues of the gaze, and avoid stepping on each others toes with those multiple edit cursors by watching each other’s eyes? Would collaboration be more effective? I bet it would. Apple, Google, give me a call…


Stian Westlake:

Unpopular opinion: Every little hack like this is getting us a bit closer to the (long-predicted, now largely derided) Death of Distance - which will have enormously positive effects on the economy and society when it finally happens.

Positive statements like this were relatively rare in the responses to my tweet. And while I share the sentiment… the implementation and context give me equal concern.


Rachel Coldicutt:

This feels like a nope. Why should my phone decide where I should be looking? Auto-correct for facial expressions is a whole new weird world of darkness. (And maybe where the animoji training data has been going?)

Oh ... I mean, is this actually deep fake as a product?

Quite a few people (men FWIW) have replied to this to say it doesn’t seem creepy to them, but the first rule of “is this creepy?” is not “Do this seem creepy to ME?” but “Does this seem creepy to someone with less power or status or more vulnerability than me?”

Rachel Coldicutt’s response sums it up for me. Auto-correct for facial expressions is Attention Correction is a nutshell. Not only because auto-correct has both positive and negative consequences, but also because — in this case — an idea of “correctness” in face-to-face communication is invented, and the idea that there is or should be “correctness” here is something I would push back on very strongly.

Coldicutt’s final point, which is to bring in power, is the most important point in all of this: looking through the lens of power is where discussion of this feature should begin and end.

And so my question is this:

since the category of “unreal” (deep fake, fictional, mediated) video is here to stay, and only going to grow, and knowing that gaze awareness is important and, yes, something that should be available to design with; listening to the many concerns and always sensitive to the dynamics of power and vulnerability; how could Apple present this Attention Correction feature differently today (it may be nothing more than displaying an icon on the receiving end) in order to help us develop the best cues and social norms to not only minimise damage, but to best position us for an inclusive, collaborative, technology-positive future?

Midnight Poem by Sappho

Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

I don’t know much - really anything - by or about Sappho. Except this, a fragment of the Midnight Poem, and in particular this translation by Mary Barnard, which was the subject of a blog post by Clive Thompson from 2016 (that link to Internet Archive): In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

It’s beautiful. The blog post is only available in the Archive now, and the translation isn’t available online except as a photograph which is a broken image in that blog post, so I’ve transcribed it here so I’ve got it to come back to.

In that post, Thompson describes a recently published astronomy paper:

The Pleiades (which is that tight box of stars which I recognise but I’m rubbish at names; by Aldebaran) - says the paper - were visible, in 570 BC around the time the poem was written, at the appointed time which is before midnight, between 25 January and 5 April.

I can imagine how I feel at that time of night, at that time of year. No artificial light of course, or not much anyway. No stultifying heat. I haven’t slept yet, so it’s not in that witching hour before second sleep. But I’m awake and gazing at the sky, long enough that I can see the stars move.

It brings me closer to Sappho. The eyes of science as an empathy machine.

Meat and gratitude

There's a bunch of fuss about Beyond Burger rn regarding

  • ingredients - I'd mentally filed Beyond as "healthy plant-based" whereas it's a ton of bad-for-you vegetable oil and really should be sceptically thought of as "heavily processed"
  • carbon footprint - beef is bad

I'm excited about these new vegan burgers because

  • "artificial" does not necessarily equal "bad" so I'm in principle ok with the heavily-processed thing (though I'm concerned in how this is being obfuscated)
  • the meat and dairy industry sucks
  • yes, carbon footprint: as a society, we need to wean ourselves off things that are killing our planet
  • new flavours, good stuff

BUT: thought experiment:

  • Would I prefer not to eat heavily processed foods? Yes
  • If the carbon footprint of meat could be reduced to something closer to plant-based burgers, using a combination of reduced frequency of consumption and hand-wavey magic, would that reduce my discomfort? Yes
  • In that situation, would I still eat meat, assuming it came from a source that wasn't unnecessarily cruel? Yes.
  • The big question: would I still feel uncomfortable about it? Yes.

Why my remaining discomfort? Because animals are, well, animals. They're people too. I've known a bunch of animals, and we're all people in different ways. That fact is hard to reconcile with eating them.

For me, I do continue to eat meat (although less than I used). But I think a lot of my discomfort around it - environmentally, the agro-industry, health - is displacement from the hard-to-digest fact that, when I've met a cow, they're super nice to hang out with, and I could see us being friends. And that feeling isn't going to go away.

I have a hunch that our inability to deal with the immensity of this gift - this animal-person who has been killed so I can have my dinner - means that, either deep down or out loud, we end up denying there's a gift or any kind of trade-off at all, hence the tribalism, and lack of sensible discussion, around the adjacent topics of health, carbon, and so on.

Or, to put it another way

The slip-sliding and dissembling around health benefits/carbon/etc makes me think that a bigger issue is being psychologically avoided. And for me, maybe that issue is "meat tastes great" vs "holy shit animals are people too" which is so hard to reconcile that it gets repressed, and repressed feelings come out in weird ways.

So here's my solution, because without addressing the core matter of co-personhood, nothing else will work

I like that being vegan is a movement, in a way that being vegetarian was a movement in the 1980s, or Atkins in the early 2000s. These are lifestyle choices that bring alignment with the body and the planet by promoting practice changes and introducing a new kind of mindfulness.

Could there be a similar movement that embraces some of the logic behind the Beyond Burger, but also includes meat?

Here's my suggestion:

  • a selective diet that is vegetarian except it allows meat when that meat is from a known local source, farmed with care, and not consumed with great frequency
  • when such meat is eaten, a prayer of gratitude is said to the animal

I am a big believer in vocalised gratitude as a means towards mindfulness, but mainly towards being able to accept the weight, meaning, obligation, and reciprocity of a gift.

Once gratitude is internalised and the gift of sacrifice is accepted, I've a feeling that the rest will fall into place. In short: a more balanced relationship between the food we need to live as individuals, and the planet we need to live together.

Ok so this is just saying grace. But oriented towards the animal.

I wonder if there could be a single phrase which expresses gratitude for the gift?

And something, unlike the traditional and passive For what we are about to receive..., that acknowledges my actions and choices that have brought about this meal of meat and all that it required? Said out loud, it would promote discussion and maybe even spread...

Grativore!

One year of Job Garden weeknotes, with links

I missed the anniversary: it's now week 61 of Job Garden. I write weeknotes on the Job Garden blog and they're invisible here, so to rectify that: here are links to all the posts to date. Expect a combination of feature releases and rambling tangents about the old days of the internet.

This is more for me than you, so I'll point out any particular post which I think is worth a read.

Until this point, Job Garden was personal: just a place for me to share jobs at companies I'm connected with in some way (i.e. that I've invested in either personally or more likely via R/GA Ventures, or ones I advise, or they're run by mates).

Now, as an experiment, since a few others had asked if they could also use Job Garden, I started opening it up a bit.

But still very much a hobby. That's one of the things I like about Job Garden: it's well within my comfort zone to build and design, so as a hobby it's perfect because it's about craft and doing things "properly"... and whether that means "100% working" or "opinionated" I'll leave open.

Here's a post in its own section because it still gets a bunch of traffic. So maybe you would like to read it too?

These next few months feel like their own chapter... adding a few more friends to garden their own job boards, and the general data and design improvements required in consequence:

Ah, and at this point Stella was born. So everything stopped until week 50.

That 17 week period - four and a bit months - was interesting (baby aside, which of course is interesting and joyful and awesome and all kinds of superlatives, but I'm talking about JG here) because it gave me room to think about Job Garden. And remember it's still a hobby at this point!

Coming into 2019, a handful of my users got in touch and asked for additional features. So I looked at what I'd built and I thought: it's rare that you make something that does a valuable thing and also people want to use it enough that they're requesting features. Then I thought: I should take this more seriously.

So the chapter that follows is the chapter of: work on Job Garden enough that I can tell whether or not to take it seriously.

I'm not on JG full time. I'm working on other things too. I get up at 6 and work on Job Garden then, and I work at night after the family have gone to bed. During the day I often work on JG but I also have other gigs, and I'm a parent too, and the parent bit gets priority.

Perhaps there's something commercial in Job Garden that doesn't compromise the value it provides to the startups I care about (that's one of our overriding principles. We've got 12.). Perhaps not, and if there's not then the worst thing that will happen is that we've built something good.

The goal for this year is to figure out whether there is something commercial and uncompromising there. If that's the case, I'll take JG seriously at that point.

So the rest of the weeknotes (till now, I guess) are in that chapter.

They are also less frequent, and seem to be more about feature releases although of course with regular tangents. Here:

That brings us up to date.

Reading all these weeknotes back, just now, it also feels like the end of a chapter, or at least a subchapter: having shipped autotags and the new design, Job Garden basically represents what was in my head pre week 1. Sure there needs to be more data on which to pivot, and more ways to receive alerts about new jobs, etc, and there is a ton to do around that, but that's all just a matter of colouring between the lines.

I feel like now everything's on the table; the basic Lego bricks have been made; the frame has been created. So it's time to figure out what to do with those pieces, and the motivations for what to prioritise from the roadmap (which is big believe me) will be different from what they've been so far.

Which means year 2 will feel different. Exactly how I'll have to see in next year's retrospective.

On the New Forest

Perhaps everyone has an ur-place--a place by which all others are understood--maybe they do and maybe they don't, but mine is where I grew up and it's the New Forest

(which isn't new, as it was founded 900 years ago, and it is barely a forest--mostly heath and scrub and copses)

I'm here now and I've been out for a run. I can't say I miss it when I'm not here, but when I come back to this landscape which is evidently imprinted deep in my psyche somewhere, my heart swells to bursting

so running is a matter of stumbling from one overwhelming heavenly moment heart bursts the pool of bluebells nestled under the tree! to another overwhelming heart bursts the sun beams dappling through the branches into the deep woods! to another...

till eventually on a bridleway on the open forest (which, so you can picture it, is low rolling heath with grass and ferns with gorse bushes and ponies and donkeys, going misty blue into the distance), running, I couldn't take it anymore, and stopped and looked at the grass

under my feet. The grass between the ferns and heather and gorse is cropped like a lawn, kept that way by the horses who live on the forest, and the grass of course is green but then you look at it, and I can't help but inventory the colours

grass green

lime

pale blue greens

sun-bleached yellow

deep moss green shadows, all of these blades of grass, all different

auburn tips of unfurling new shoots

deep brown, light beige

between: bone white

because the forest is on a chalk bed, so you get these startling whites, and the water when you see it runs crystal clear, chalk streams they're called, so the soil not just brown but grey and hazel

ceder

emerald

lichen--a pale fire

then: tiny: you don't notice them at first: lilac petals

These are the two shocking colours of the forest: tiny bright, secret purples foreshadowing the purple carpet of the heather that will come out in the autumn; and yellow, the bright yellow flowers of the gorse, a million points of light like the stars in the milky way

all over this infinity of greens and browns and whites, a full half of my gaze, the bottom half is green, and the top half blue--the sky--and to notice that the world, the regular old world, is painted in primary colours, I lose my breath again

So the rest of the run I alternate between stopping and looking at the plants, the horses, the horizon, getting lost in it--and sprinting as hard as I can, feeling the land and the sky in my legs and my lungs

If I showed you a picture it wouldn't make any sense. The real picture is the how it shaped me and what it feels like to come back, my own psychic contours exactly complemented and filled by the landscape I am in once again.

Calvino in Invisible Cities, after 55 magical descriptions of faraway places: Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. His ur-place. The New Forest is mine.

Recipes for tandoori masala and chaat masala

It's been sunny which means it's BBQ season which means I need my chicken tikka fix which means it's spice mix time.

Here are some pictures on my Instagram.

Garam masala

I posted the garam masala recipe I use back in 2014 and I still use the same one. It's a great spice base, lots of texture, and I like the balance--it's not too peppery (which I find shop-bought ones can be).

(This isn't required for tikka but included here for completeness.)

Tandoori masala

I've adapted my tandoori masala blend from this chicken tandoori recipe on NDTV Food. I like it to have a BBQ taste to it, and that's done by going heavy on the cinnamon, fenugreek, and onions. I only recently discovered that British Indian curry houses absolutely load their dishes with dried fenugreek, and for better or worse I find the distinctive flavour really more-ish.

I feel like there should be paprika but I'm on the fence about the sweetness it would add. I'm still iterating this mix so maybe I'll include some next time.

There's no chilli. I add that separately.

The recipe:

  • Cinnamon, about 6 heaped tbsp when broken up
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 15 green cardamom
  • 10 brown cardamom
  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 10 cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp ground mace
  • 1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 tbsp onion seeds

Prep: Toast (keep moving around in a hot, dry pan) until the aromas come out but careful not to burn. Leave in a dish to cool. Use a coffee grinder to grind though not the one you use for actual coffee.

Chaat masala

Chaat masala gives the tikka its distinctive tang, and that come mainly from amchoor. I've previously just bought chaat masala but substituted it pretty regularly (when I've run out) with amchoor or just citric acid.

So this summer I figured I would make my own blend and I've based it on this recipe:

  • 3 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tbsp saunf (fennel seeds)
  • 4 tablespoons amchoor (dried mango powder)
  • 3 tbsp black salt (I used 2 black salt, for smokiness, and 1 celery salt for tang)
  • 1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp hing/asafetida powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
  • 1 tsp dried, powdered mint (I didn't have any of this on hand so skipped it, but will use next time)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ajwain (I use dried aniseed)

Prep as above.

Tikka marinade

I use these two blends to make chicken tikka. The marinade I use is from that NDTV Food recipe above but I'll repeat it here for reference:

  • 3 or 4 tsp red chilli paste
  • 3 tbsp ginger and garlic paste
  • 2 tsp chaat masala
  • 1 1/2 tsp tandoori masala
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 3 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1/2 lemon (juiced)

Add the marinade to cubed chicken thighs, paneer, or shrimp. Mix well and leave in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. Cook as kebabs under the grill or on the BBQ.

What has the EU ever done for us? Some thoughts on a new mapping project

There’s a new project being shared round today that maps EU-funded projects in the UK: here it is. It’s easy to use and very interesting to find out, for example, what projects have been funded in my home town.

Kudos to the folks who built it. Creating sites like this is hard work, and a vital part of the national discussion about the EU.

So for transparency (which is a good thing) I’m hugely in favour of this.

But in terms of what I think about the EU funding itself, I’m not so sure. The strapline for the site is What has the EU done for your area? and while in one sense that’s true, it makes me think: but this was the UK’s money to begin with, right?

Looking at the breakdown of the EU membership fee, the UK paid £13.1bn into the EU budget in 2016, and received back £5.5bn in various forms of funding (£4.5bn channeled through the public sector, and approx. £1bn direct to the private sector). So the first thing the mapping project highlights is that the UK pays more to the EU than it "gets back."

That purely budgetary framing makes me uncomfortable. Should we really be looking at what we "get back" from the EU in terms of project funding? How do we value reduced friction to trade (and associated economic boost), the reduction in defence and diplomatic spending (by being part of a bloc), the cultural benefits of having a stronger voice on the world stage, etc.

What this mapping project also highlights is, well, should the EU be choosing how this money is spent at all? When money is spent directly by the UK government there is a certain amount of democratic accountability. I know who I can complain to, I know how I can try to influence the spending criteria, and I can campaign to vote out the people ultimately responsible if I really disagree.

But for EU spending? It’s more abstract. When I see this map of EU spending in the UK, what it makes me ask is why the UK government isn’t in charge of it. That same discomfort was, of course, a reason why people voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Although if the UK government controlled the spending, that doesn’t imply that it could all go the NHS instead--regardless of what was written on the side of a bus--as many of these projects are vital for our agriculture, regional growth, jobs, and industrial strategy, and you wouldn’t want to stop them. So leaving the EU wouldn’t mean we’d get this money "back" in the national budget by any means.

Now, on balance, I believe Brexit is a bad idea. The UK’s contribution to the EU is only 2% of our total national budget and, as I said, the "non-spending" benefits of EU membership matter significantly, and many of these projects would be funded anyhow.

But I’m not an unequivocal booster of everything the EU does. This mapping project is fixing a huge lack of transparency. The level of democratic accountability worries me: how do we know that all of these projects are within the mandate that we’ve given to the EU under the treaties, and how can we influence the allocations? I happen to believe that these problems are addressable as a member of the EU. (And to be honest, the same concerns could be levelled at the UK government about the project grants we do control.)

So while I’m pleased (and relieved) that this spending is broadly sensible, I’m not sure it should be waved around as "hey look at all this awesome stuff we’re getting from the EU." I don’t think that’s the case it makes at all.

--

My brand of weight-it-all-up ambivalence doesn’t play particularly well in this era of hyper-shareable Facebook posts and 24 hour news cycle sound bites.

However it’s by taking into account evidence like this that I’m able to say with increasing confidence that Brexit doesn’t add up. I look at what’s going on, consider alternatives, and... well, the Brexit options currently on the table look terrible, and the impending exit day of 2019 (which occurs well ahead of any trade deal being done) is so close with so little certainty around which to prepare that I fear a lot of damage and hurt will result.

It’s also this kind of easy-to-read evidence that we were lacking in the 2016 referendum, which is why I don’t think anyone (however they voted) really knew enough to make an informed decision, and why it’s perfectly ok to revisit the issue now and have a re-think before it’s too late. Given the circumstances it’s ok to change your mind.

That mapping project again: myeu.uk. More like this please!

I'm also blogging over at the Job Garden blog

It's been a little quiet on this site lately. A bunch of my writing energy has been going into weekly posts on the Job Garden blog.

Job Garden is a new kind of social job board. I started building it because I know a bunch of great startups, and I want to help them with their hiring. It's a real scratch-my-own-itch kind of thing. Right now on my personal job board there are 38 open roles at 12 companies, and you can check them out here.

It's only 12 weeks old. I try to add something to it every week. So this week: somebody other than me has created a job board. Last week: I launched weekly email updates of new jobs. The week before that, the ability to focus down on just London jobs.

It's super simple (the tech is entirely within my comfort zone), there's zero visual design, in terms of stage it's like pre-pre-alpha, and it's fun to stretch these muscles that haven't had a workout in a long ol' while.

The weekly posts can be a bit rambly, and occassionally stray into the realm of "half-thought-through opinions about code" which, who knows, might be entirely up your street.

To read from the beginning, the blog has a weeknotes categories.

Four short stories and what I learnt writing them

So I've now written FOUR whole stories for my short fiction writing group, Upsideclown. ICYMI in August last year, we started publishing again after a 14 year hiatus.

I wanted to collect links to my four stories in one place. = this blog post.

I wouldn't say I'm great at writing fiction. I find it tough. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to pick holes in what I've written. So instead, as an exercise--and as some personal positive reinforcement--I want to remind myself what I learnt writing each one, and also what I like.


Moving House (August 2017)

We sat atop Parliament Hill as the sun went down, London lapping at our feet, glass of wine in hand, a hard red line on the horizon fading not to black but the glow of LED streetlamps diffused through the humid breath of our ten million neighbours.

I love the way scenes ping pong between two different time periods, immediate and past, and I love the punchiness of last two lines.

But goodness is it dense like a compacted shit. You can tell that I hadn't written for years, and had been attempting to peristaltically emit this particular story for most of that time. The ideas are given zero room to breathe. When I read it back, there are concepts in shorthand that flower in my head--but there are no clues available for anyone else.

One thing I like:

  • In this story I managed to write dialogue for the first time ever. My way in was to reduce reporting to "said". I also (again for the first time) started thinking consciously about point of view: the POV character has no insight into what K-- is thinking (or doing while she is out of sight), and so neither does the reader.

The search for another intelligence (December 2017)

Bruno had been approached to do background colour for "3,114 B.C. and All That," an upcoming TV series on the conspiracy theories centred on that year. The dawn of the Mayan calendar; the mysterious construction of Stonehenge. Docu-entertainment. 'Docu-bullshit,' he had replied but he took the work. The chance to get closer to TV producers again, that had been why he did it.

Oh gosh I like this one. The best of the four.

This marks the first time I have ever written fiction in a conscious and deliberate fashion: I had an idea; realised it needed to cross over with an emotional journey so added that; sketched it out in a series of lines; blocked those lines out into scenes; wrote each scene properly; and then revised. It was also the first time I ever managed to write a story over approx. 1,000 words.

Previously all my writing has been automatic: wait for the muse, then type until my mind goes too fast for my hands or I need to pee. Great when it works, but a local maximum in terms of quality. My goal in writing with this group is to learn the craft.

I'm pleased at how the scenes work: I don't spend excess time getting into them (you know the Wadsworth Constant where you can no-fear skip the first 30% of any YouTube video? I tried to internalise that). And I tried to finish each on something that would provide impulse to read the following.

I spent time working on the characters for this one. I have an idea about who Bruno and Hope are, with character notes too. I was brutal with myself about making sure I understood their motivation at every point-and then being rigorous to ensure that every other action was true to that required motivation.

The ending is poignant, although maybe a little cheap.

It's also exposition heavy. The story doesn't work without a ton of explaining. And given that the emotional journey leans heavily on human fundamentals... well, I perhaps should be stretching myself more. Pop songs are always love songs. But there are maybe more interesting anchors.

Still, it works, and if I would change anything it would be to make it slightly less abrupt in places, and to ease up on the background. As yet I lack the skill to revise (I can tweak words but I haven't figured out how to have the distance to re-write scenes) but this is one I'll come back to.


The Ursa Major Moving Group (March 2018)

It happened regularly, thought Ant, this premonition of the end of living, the Grim Reaper's breath every six months or so, and every time it left Ant untethered and terrified, driven to his studio to use his eyes and use his hands. Twice a year or more he was picked off his feet by who-knows-what and swept up the beach, left gasping when the wave retreated, shivering and exposed.

As his own death had become a familiar acquaintance, at some point in the last decade, layered underneath as the swell is beneath the waves, Ant had met something slower and longer, tidal and from beyond the horizon, something entirely deadlier and more final, the echo from the deep future of the end of humanity itself.

Good grief I hated writing this story.

I had something written in my notes--a pun on an astronomical feature, the Ursa Major Moving Group--and it lodged in me to the point that literally nothing else could get out of my fingers. So this took a month to force out.

Building on the previous stories, I used outlines and characters... but really Ant is the only one I understand. Even he doesn't have much depth.

Is it any good? Who the hell knows. I like the first half. The second half--which bounds forward I'm not kidding 10,000 years in nine short scenes-is far, far too dense. This second half is framed almost entirely in a dream, and this was a solution to a particular conundrum. But it doesn't feel nearly hallucinatory enough to be believable, or have enough story for you to get engaged in it for its own sake.

The conundrum was how to reach a particular concluding feeling that Ant has of betrayal, envy, and acceptance. You know, I think it works for that. I've been fascinated for a while by the story of Augustus and Caesarion and how it might have actually felt--I'm not quite there, but it's a rich seam.

So what I liked here? There was a certain complicated feeling I wanted to arrive at. Tick.


Volume Five (May 2018)

At 3am he woke up with the heavy taste of whisky still in his mouth, cheek stuck to the pillow. Sophie was in the other room, in their bedroom. The flat was quiet. The streetlamp outside shone through the naked window onto the diary left open on the spare room bed.

It was the fifth volume. He didn't remember looking at that. It was open to the page for June 5th, one week from today's date.

Leo blinked gummy sleep from his eyes. Where the page should have been blank, there was a single sentence: Leo gets a job.

This story went up a couple days back so maybe I don't have the distance... but I'm kinda not a fan, and kinda totally am. It mundane; the characters are one-dimensional; there's nothing clever about how the narrative works; I wrote it in a rush.

But. But there's an actual story here. It's not a story that relies on my usual cheap go-tos: huge epiphany; lengthy exposition; plumbing the depths of human agony and/or ecstasy. That was the challenge I set myself-to tell a good old fashioned story with zero frilly bits-and it's the first time I've managed to do that. (Well, actually I wanted to write a ghost story, avoiding sci-fi, and while it's not quite a ghost story it is in the right direction.)

Technically I enjoy the way the scenes move. My sketched outline had more detail, but the final story hides and reveals, hides and reveals, in a way that propels it along. That's a little bit of craft I've picked up from the previous three stories, and it felt easier this time.

What don't I like? The characters and their motivations could be better understood. The situations could have more texture. Structurally something more exotic could be going on. The emotional journey could wrestle a little with the narrative.

In particular, the words could use poetry. My self-set personal challenge has been to steer clear of fancy words. Abandon any and all crutches to force me to concentrate on story and dialogue. I think, over the last year and these four stories, I've done that enough... but now I find myself wondering where my voice is and how to reintroduce it. It's one thing writing blog posts, like this, but I'd love to find the same fluency and style in fiction over which I deliberate.


Enough with the self congratulatory introspection.

TL;DR: I'm enjoying writing again enormously. I feel like I'm learning some lego bricks that with a bunch more practice might one day evolve into actual craft. Hopefully a few people are enjoying reading these stories too.


Hey and let me not take away from the other authors! There are SEVEN of us in the writing group, six who are writing regularly. Check out the whole archive since the reboot. It is legit good shit.