Weeknote, Sunday 15 January 2023

This was quite a busy week for work, with many meetings and even a day in London at the new offices (the first time I have visited, and very nice). It was a little bit less of a week for other stuff, apart from reading and watching interesting things.

I think I have a trapped nerve in my back though, which isn’t going away and which is proving to be a bit of an issue as it limits the amount that I can easily walk and stand. The good news is it doesn’t affect cycling – different muscles, different posture – but at some point I have to talk to the doctor about it and probably get to an osteopath. I can tell its a trapped nerve and not muscle strain as, a while after it has kicked in, I get a numb feeling down the front of the thigh on the same side, which is where that set of nerves heads to. The pleasures of getting old.

What I’ve been writing

To be honest I have done more farting around with technology than I have done writing. Something I have to fix in the coming few weeks. I have ideas, but ideas are ten a sodding penny.

What I’ve been watching and reading

This week I dived headlong into watching The Rig on Amazon Prime and it is fair to describe it as poor. Some of the acting was good – Iain Glen and Owen Teale are proper pros – but the plot had so many holes in it it looked like a pure wool jumper in a house full of clothes moths. The CGI was second-rate, despite apparently being quite expensive, probably because every external shot from the rig and of the rig was CGI. It ends on a cliffhanger that’s obviously a desperate attempt to drum up enough interest to make a second series viable, but without ever really making the characters believable enough to care about them. When a writer throws in the Hail Mary pass of making a character pregnant about two-thirds of the way through the series, you know it has reached the point where no one cares about these characters, and they are just throwing the kitchen sink at the page.

My bad reading habit of putting aside one book and starting another (often something I have read before) reappeared this week, when I temporarily dropped Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit in favour of picking up M John Harrison’s short story collection Settling the World. The good bit about short story collections is that I race through them quickly. The bad bit is they are like getting all my calories from sugar. Although, to be fair to me, Harrison’s shorts aren’t always easy meat: a story about how embedding an axe into your face becomes fashionable is… well, weird.

The biggest “watch” of the week is Empire of Light, Sam Mendes’ new film, which would be a shoo-in for the Best Picture Oscar in another year. However, because St Steven of Spielberg has released a film which is not only semi-biographical but a love letter to making movies, he will win, and everything else will get consolation prizes.

In this case, those consolation prizes should include a bunch of technical Oscars – the lighting is amazing – as well as Olivia Coleman getting a second one, Micheal Ward getting at least a nomination for best actor, and you can take your pick of Toby Jones and Colin Firth for best supporting actor. Everyone in the supporting cast is excellent. A little shout out to Tom Brooke, who you might recognise from his role in Preacher and who turns in a lovely little performance full of kindness and light.

This is definitely cinema season, with both Tár and Enys Men coming up soon, plus More than Ever. Lots to see.

Weeknote, Sunday 8th January 2023

This was the first week back at work since the middle of December, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. Good to see everyone I work with, though.

The good news was that my MacBook Pro was brought back from the dead by our local independent Apple dealer. It had been dead for several months after a failed update to Ventura (thanks largely to our poxy broadband), which led to a strange “cryptographic error” happening every time it tried to update anything. I assume this was down to the disk encryption going wonky, but I decided to nuke the whole thing from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure) and reinstall Monterey, then make a fresh attempt to update.

Of course, that update failed too. So I tried wiping the whole disk and promptly lost the ability to see it, even via Target Disk Mode. Once I had tried using Apple Configurator to fix it — the last option available — and that had failed, it was time to bring in the experts. And a day later, I had a working, upgraded, very blank MacBook Pro.

It’s been good to get back to using a Mac laptop after quite a while when I didn’t really have one (my old MacBook Air is also in need of a wipe and install), using Mac-native tools like Ulysses rather than cross-platform ones. And the Pro has a 16in screen, which feels much less cramped than the 14in one on my ThinkPad. Even though it’s the last generation of Intel Macs, it’s still an excellent machine with a few years of life left in it.

Writing

This has been a bit of a frustrating writing week. I reached an impasse with the Alice and God story, which I started before Christmas because I had done a rough outline of the plot but reached the point where I needed to flesh it out a bit more – and I was trying to write my way through it instead. That doesn’t really work for me: I either need to know nothing about what’s going on (in which case I discover it through writing) or have a reasonably solid idea of what a scene is supposed to do in the plot (in which case I can give it some direction). So back to the plotting board!

And because I love tinkering around with tools, I will start using Ulysses again rather than Scrivener. Don’t get me wrong — Scrivener is an excellent application for putting together anything long-form — but I think it’s a bit fussy, and I like the idea of having all my writing in one place. At the moment, it’s split between Ulysses and Obsidian (blog posts and short-form) and Scrivener (long-form), and it’s not quite gelling for me.

Reading and watching

Also, a quiet week for reading: I restocked the unread books stack with a few items.

Yearnote, 2022

When the first day of a year falls on a Sunday, I suspect it’s a good idea to look back on the previous year. A yearnote, if you will.

I could look back at the year’s posts and pick out highlights, but as it’s about a year, I think it’s better to look at the key themes that defined 2022. Obviously, these are things I can talk about — so there’s nothing about work here — and I’ve chosen to look at the positives rather than the negatives, which I will save for my journal.

With that context, the year has three themes: rediscovering writing, focusing more on my health, and reading. A lot of reading.

Rediscovering writing

I’ve been a journalist for (as of two days from now) 28 years. That seems fantastical to me as I still think of myself as the new kid on the block. This year forced me to accept that wasn’t true, and I realised that what I do now in journalism is managing, mentoring and advising. I don’t really write much.

And one thing that’s been consistent throughout my career and life is that I love writing. I got a typewriter as a teenager because I liked writing stories which turned into Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, and my handwriting was… not great (it still isn’t). I learned to touch type at 16 at further education college because you had to do a Wednesday afternoon activity, and sport bored me. After that, I was a student and wrote, and then I was a journalist and wrote. So writing has always been there.

I needed an outlet for my writing. And importantly, I didn’t want to just do more blogging about technology. One thing I hadn’t done was a lot of creative writing because I’ve always believed I don’t have the imagination to make stories up. So I decided I wanted to give it a go.

First, I took a small weekly course based in a pub with a lovely writing tutor and a friendly group of people. I can’t think of a better introduction to creative writing than doing it in a summer pub’s garden, and we have continued meeting since.

That led to doing a five-day fiction introduction down at Arvon in Totleigh Barton. Tutored by the wonderful pairing of Charlene Teo and Michael Donkor, it was enormous fun and super-helpful in terms of my writing. But, most importantly, I think I found my voice: I had been writing how I felt I should note, and now I write how I want to write. And again, our group has stayed in touch. I don’t think I had realised quite how social writing can be.

One of the lovely moments was talking through a story idea I had been working on with Michael, which I had always envisaged as a short story. I had struggled a lot with it because I had to write short — and Michael said, “this isn’t a short story. It sounds like a novel to me”. I had always veered away from writing a novel, and it started me thinking about why. I realised two things: first, that I lacked the confidence to complete it, and second, that I have so many friends who have written novels that I think I’ve been intimidated by the idea. Michael helped me get over that, and if I ever finish a book, it will be down to the help and encouragement they gave me.

Focusing on my health

The big revelation about my health this year was that post-COVID, I need to take regular care of myself. Getting COVID the first time coincided with increased blood pressure and, because of less activity, putting on weight. Going from 10,000 plus steps per day when I was in the office to less than 5,000 working from home was always going to have an impact.

But this year, I started making some positive steps. For the first time in my life, I’ve been a regular attendee at our local GP for everything from booster vaccinations to blood tests to check that I’m not developing anything more serious. I’ve started taking medication to reduce my blood pressure (now at a decent level), and I’ve been looking after my vision with more regular check-ups at the opticians.

In 2023 this will continue as I develop more healthy eating and exercise habits, where simple changes will make a lot more difference.

Doing more reading

I was pretty surprised to find that I read 27 books in 2022. That’s the most I had read since the internet happened when all my reading shifted to computers. And it’s also been a wide range of books, not just trash science fiction (there’s been some good science fiction).

I’m really pleased with this. Reading and writing go hand in hand. The biggest thing you can do to improve your writing is to read more. So it’s probably not surprising that rediscovering my love of writing has also prompted much reading.

What’s also helped is using a new Kindle, the Scribe. I have always wanted a bigger Kindle. While the Paperwhite I have is excellent, it’s always felt just a little too small. And being able to write on the Scribe with little notes is also a fun way to add commentary, even if the comments don’t show up in my Readwise notes. It’s always interesting to me how a shift in a device can also shift your interest in a process.

Going down the Twitter memory hole

M.G Siegler on Mastodon:

Yes, yes, the network is under immense strain as people flee the Elon strain infecting Twitter. But come on, there are folks who really believe this is going to replace, or even stand alongside Twitter, as a massively scaled social network? I call bullshit. While it’s impressive that millions of users have apparently given Mastodon a try, the product is far too slapdash and clunky to keep folks engaged

I’m surprised M.G. can’t remember back to the early years of Twitter, because I know he was there and suffered just as many fail whales, lost posts, and crappy errors as I did.

Also worth remembering: as Ben Thompson has pointed out, by the objective standards of modern internet corporations, Twitter failed. It’s too small to be an interesting scale play and offers no advantages to advertisers over Facebook. Advertisers used it because they don’t like to put all their eggs in a single basket. Journalists used it because all the journalists in the world are on it, and we’re gossipy little monkeys who like to show off to all our friends.

That said, this oversized profile with media professionals meant that Twitter had an oversized influence on the media (and so political) landscape.

But, but, it’s not a product, it’s a protocol. Yeah, that’s a nice thing to say. And to believe in. But I truly believe the ship has sadly sailed for such idealism in this space.

I disagree. I don’t think that M.G. or any of the very comfortable Silicon Valley folk who have made the uber-capitalist VC world their home really understand quite how much the ground is shifting. Their world is drawing to a close. Something new is happening, and not being beholden to massive corporations is part of it. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Weeknote, Sunday 25th December 2022

I feel like in the past week I’ve travelled the country — and that’s mainly because I almost have. Last Saturday I travelled back from Devon to Kent, then on Thursday we drove up from Kent to Cumbria, where I am at the moment. We’re staying in lovely Ambleside, at a friend’s place (on our own).

Of course I love it and have a bunch of memories of the Lake District. It was a place where we went on family holidays a lot when I was a kid: here, along with Devon, Cornwall and the Cotswolds. My parents discovered country cottage rentals when I was young and after that pretty-much every holiday involved a drive to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a small rented house and a lot of fun.

These parts of the world are very evocative for me, and I’ve always loved the countryside since. We arrived after dark and in the rain (of course), and so didn’t see the view at the back till the next morning. It was quite a view to wake up to:

A view from the back window where we’re staying. There are hills, large enough to look like mountains.

I would, of course, quite happily live somewhere like this. The irony that we have better internet here than where we normally live (2Mb “broad”band FTW) is not lost on me.

Christmas presents were, of course, opened this morning: Art supplies for Kim, and a lovely replacement Lamy Studio pen plus one-off notebook for me. We had agreed a price limit: Kim cheated. Fortunately so did I.

Now it’s Radio 3 till the King’s Christmas Message, then there will be dinner making the and some TV watching, then probably reading books. Kim is even darning. We appear to have become domestic, rather than feral.

Writing

I’ve been working a little on the Alice and God project this week. This is a maybe-novel length story about a woman who meets God (as you do) and goes on an adventure. It doesn’t quite feel YA territory, but it’s fun and light. One of the things I’ve been working on is using humour to counterpoint seriousness and threat, and there’s a lot of that here. It has to be a serious story, with danger for the characters (and maybe, just maybe, one of them doesn’t make it), but the humour which is intrinsic to my writing style is there.

One of the resolutions for next year is to establish more of a rhythm to my writing. I like the idea of two blog posts a week, one piece of micro-fiction, and some work on bigger projects, but that feels like a lot when I’m also holding down a full time job. We’ll see.

Reading and watching

I finished Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I really like her writing, but there are definitely parts of the book where you can see that it was published in chunks, with some of the chapters almost being short stories in their own right. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it means that the overall plot is a bit in the background (and there’s not much to it). But i still enjoyed it a lot and now I’m on to A Closed and Common Orbit, the second in the Wayfarer series.

Because we’re away we (OK, I) have got out of the habit of just putting “the telly” on, which means I haven’t watched that much of anything. Being more intentional about what I watch is definitely a theme for the new year!

Weeknote, Sunday 11th December 2022

This week has been almost my last time at work this year. I’m off to the middle of nowhere for a five day writing retreat tomorrow, returning on Saturday, then back at work for two days before I break for the year. Amazingly I have managed to get through the year and use up all my leave, which is a pretty rare event (I get nagged about this by my managers every time).

Despite being a journalist for 28 years (gulp) I have never really done much creative writing until this year. One of my goals for 2022 was to go on a creative writing residential trip and I’m quite surprised at myself for having actually arranged it. Like most people my years tend to start with a bunch of promises and commitments which I only realise I haven’t done in December. This year appears to be different, but now that leaves me with the dreadful job of following on in 2023 with something else.

The last couple of days have been marred by me getting a particularly nasty cold, which kept me off work on Thursday and consigned me instead to either bed or the sofa underneath a blanket, gently whimpering. There’s definitely been a theme this year of getting minor colds whenever I spent any time out – and the start of this week involved a day-long workshop with work, plus of course Stereolab was last weekend. This the post-lockdown phase of an overall lack of immunity, quickly bred in by not being constantly around people. Or it could just be that there’s a lot of bugs going round. Maybe the experts know.

Things I’ve been writing

Quite often the answer to “what shall I write” is “start writing something about the last thing you read/watched/ate/saw”. That, though, can be a bit tricky — particularly if “the last thing you saw” is the movie version of On The Buses, one of the most low-rent but incredibly popular sitcoms of the 1970s. It was on ITV3. Don’t judge me.

But there is always an interesting tangent, if you spend a little time looking. In this case it was the story of Bob Grant, one of the main actors in the series. Despite having a really good track record in serious theatre – he was directed by Joan Littlewood in a few things, and Joan didn’t suffer bad acting gladly – Grant become horribly stuck in typecasting hell, and apart from a few one-offs and panto barely worked again.

He ended up making three suicide attempts over the years as the debts and hopelessness mounted with the third one being successful. It’s an incredibly sad story.

Just after reading this I watched a 1987 Arena “day in the life” piece about Jeffrey Bernard, the legendary boozer and occasional journalist who bestrode Soho in what might have been its more creative period. Bernard too had something of a sad end. Thanks to the drinking, he descended through diabetes to having a leg removed, which made him virtually housebound in a small shabby Soho flat. Unable to do his habitual routes from Coach and Horses to bookies to Colony Club, he withered away.

So I started writing something which I wanted to get into Bernard’s voice and after a few paragraphs it morphed into the story of an actor, like Grant, who struggled to get parts after national success. Three thousand words later, I have the kernel of a decent story, called “Bill and Trudy”, about an encounter between our Bob/Jeffrey amalgam (called Bill) and a homeless girl called Trudy during the height of the first wave of poverty caused by Thatcher in the late 1980s. I want it to be fun and upbeat and not too serious, but the end (which I’ve written already) is potentially a bit downbeat. It will be fun to see where it goes.

Things I’ve been reading and watching

Having cantered through Harry Turtledove’s Three miles down I’ve continued in the SF vein by diving into Ken MacLeod’s Beyond the Hallowed Sky. It’s an interesting romp through robots and faster than light travel which makes it sound horribly cliched, but it’s actually fun so far. It is, weirdly, the first book of MacLeod’s that I’ve read, which feels very remiss of me.

Weeknote, Sunday 4th December 2022

Thursday saw the arrival of my Kindle Scribe, which I pre-ordered on the day it was announced. I’ve long wanted a bigger Kindle because the smaller ones just aren’t that great for reading on, and although my iPad is huge, it’s also got a lot of distractions on it, which make it less suitable for reading. The ability to write on it is a bonus, but I’m surprised how effective adding comments using the pen is. It’s like adding little Post-Its, which is exactly how I work with paper books.

Big trip to that there London yesterday, when we caught up with a lovely friend over from New York in the Royal Festival Hall bar, then headed to see Stereolab with another lovely friend. There was dancing — well more shuffling around from me — and this morning, an inevitable plethora of aches. Kids, if you’re under 40, look after your body. Do yoga or something. Don’t eat so many pies.

All that means today involved a greasy spoon breakfast — well, 1pm breakfast — plus many cups of reviving tea and a sofa.

One other thing today has been winding down my Twitter account. I finally downloaded the 1.4Gb archive of all my content from it, and used the Twitter Archive Parser on it. This does four things:

  1. It converts tweets to Markdown with embedded images
  2. It replaces the t.co links with the originals
  3. It copies all the images into a single folder, useful for importing them elsewhere
  4. If an image is a low-resolution version, it download the original
    Once that was done I used ByeByeTweets to do three more things:
  5. Unfollow everyone I was following
  6. Remove all the likes I had put on other people’s content
  7. Delete all my tweets
    ByeByeTweets costs a few dollars if you want to delete all tweets (it will do a limited amount for free) but I highly recommend it. I ran into a bug uploading my archive, which you need to do if you’re deleting all of them, and emailed them. They responded within a couple of hours and had fixed the error.

So that’s pretty much it with Twitter and me! You can find me on Mastodon.

Writing

I’ve written a lot of notes on how to improve a story I’ve been struggling with, along with an outline of how to move it forward.

Reading and watching

I’m reading Harry Turtledove’s Three Miles Down which is, so far, an enjoyably frothy alternate history novel. It’s really interesting that I’m starting to look at books like this with a more technical writers eye, spotting elements of foreshadowing and the odd McGuffin.

Musk could make his own phone. But no, he won’t.

Daring Fireball: Should Be Easy, Indeed:

The hard part is that what he’s really talking about is making his own phone with his own app store. (Android phones that don’t play by Google’s rules also don’t get access to Google Play Services, which is effectively a closed-source segment of the Android operating system. Outside of China, I’m aware of zero successful Android phones that don’t use the Google Play app store by default.)

This isn’t quite correct. You can create a fork of Android which can access apps from the Play Store, without the Play Store. There are open-source versions of the Play Store APIs, and you can use Aurora Store to access apps with or without a Google account. This is one of the ways Graphene OS uses optionally to run those apps.

But it is hit-and-miss. Like every kind of development which attempts to reverse engineer something, it will occasionally break and apps can go awry. It’s good, but not perfect – and I suspect that were a major figure like Musk to go down this route, Google would have legal teams on it in seconds.

Weeknote, 27th November 2022

My notebook, like my week, is blank. This is not a good sign: when there’s nothing scrawled there other than work notes, it indicates my life is moving slightly out of kilter.

That truth is piled all around me in books unread, mugs unwashed, and food left uncooked. It’s there in the MacBook Pro near me, still lurking on the to-do list as “fix MacBook Pro” a good month after it first gave me a random “cryptographic error”. Thank you, Apple, for making things stupidly easy when they go well and stupidly complex when they go wrong.

I keep reminding myself that my inability to fix it isn’t due to age finally stopping me from taking in new information and understanding fresh technology. It’s simply that Apple, and most other companies, have put people being able to fix their own technology at the bottom of a long list of priorities. I suspect it’s just underneath “Make sure Tim’s latte is on his desk at 7 am precisely”. And why would anyone want to fix their own Macs? Just visit a Genius Bar, where a friendly blue-shirted barely-trained youth will try and use you to fill his quota of upsell opportunities.

As you may have noticed. I’m slightly out of love with Apple. Less so with the company’s products. I still love my iPad Pro (and wish I could make it my only machine), and I have yet to find an Android phone which didn’t make me want to run back to an iPhone.

But I wish Apple the company would stop acting like greedy assholes and start reading the room. No, Tim, you cannot sustain a 30% cut of app revenue for the rest of the time. No, Tim, you cannot keep building your devices in a way which makes them hard to repair and then pay sneering lip service to making parts available for them. Those days are over, and if you want to preserve the things which are good for customers about the App Store and your products, you need to accept that sooner rather than clinging on till a regulator changes things for you. Call Bill Gates and ask him how long a company takes to recover after regulators take things out of your hands.

Ah, capitalism.

Things I’ve been reading and watching

The final episode of Andor wasn’t quite the finale I had been hoping for, but it was good. The whole series was excellent, and although it’s a cliché to call it “Star Wars for grown-ups”, it is still the best description. It’s a thriller and a spy story rather than a space opera and an excellent example of what happens when you apply a different genre’s set of rules to a world built for another kind of writing.

Things I’ve been writing

I started a new blog just for creative writing. The first was a piece about a child’s Christmas — OK, my Christmas — and the second was about a couple of early memories and my family. The third piece was just something super-short about a sound you don’t hear much anymore: the ticking of a clock.

I like writing fragments like this (I have a tag in Obsidian, where I do most of my short writing, called “fragments”, just for this). Of course, it comes relatively easy to me, unlike plotting which makes me feel like I am pushing a wheelbarrow full of concrete up a hill while the wind and rain come straight down on my face.

Weeknote, 13th November 2022

This week has mostly revolved around the trapped nerve in my shoulder, which came on last Sunday evening. It took me almost completely out of action on Monday and Tuesday, as I just couldn’t sit at a computer and work – sitting up for too long was just painful.

I think that a lot of it is to do with posture, not so much when I’m sitting and typing but when I’m in the endless parade of online meetings on Teams which forms quite a chunk of my work. When I’m in meetings I tend to slump a bit to my left, usually with my hand supporting my chin, which probably isn’t the best position to be sat for a long while.

That’s exacerbated by my chair, which is lovely to look at but not ideal for spending a great deal of time sitting in and typing. The height of it isn’t adjustable, and it’s a little low with a back support which is OK at the bottom but not quite at the right sort of angle for my daily use. To compensate, I’ve raised the height of my monitor so that it’s higher, which forces me to sit more upright when I’m using it.

Of course, this was also the week when the long-awaited Muskapocalypse basically happened on Twitter, which led to some reflection on the state and development of social media. I should, of course, write something up properly about this, but it’s made me understand that the difference between social media now and in 2006 is that the news we think requires immediate delivery to our followers is no longer personal, it’s political.

When Twitter started, it was one of a slew of services which aimed to decouple the “Status” field from instant messaging apps like AIM to a third party which could then provide a brief message about what you were doing to all your friends. My first tweet on December 3rd 2006 was “going for a dump”, and in a scatological way that summed up what Twitter was there for.

It became that, but on a much larger scale: a method of delivering “vital” information in a timely fashion to large groups of people. News breaks on Twitter now, even before it hits the (already fast) 24-hour news services. I doubt that’s a good thing, for reasons which would take a whole post to define.

Weeks which start with being off or sick often don’t turn into particularly productive times, but this one was a little different. We’re at the end point of a phase in the project I’ve been focused on at work, and the beginning of planning for the next phase. That means there’s some breathing room, although there’s still a lot of wrapping up to do (and there will be until the end of the year).

We also went to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on Friday (more on that below) and I booked my train ticket for the weeklong writing retreat that I’m going on in December. I’m really looking forward to this, not only because it’s a week of writing, but also because it’s a week with no internet. Yes, that’s right: there’s no Wi-Fi (thanks to the building being ridiculously old and so hard to get connected) and virtually no mobile signal (5G? Forget it). I can’t wait.

Things I’ve been reading and watching

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was good. It wasn’t as good as the first film, but given the awful death of Chadwick Boseman, how could it be? The way it handled his passing and made it a part of the movie was brilliant: sensitive, emotional, everything you could have asked. I think I counted four or five times that had me sobbing, from the opening Marvel logo (which forsook the usual montage of many heroes to be all Chadwick) through to the credits which start with “For our friend, Chadwick Boseman”.

I have no idea why his death has affected me so much – I can’t remember an actor’s death making me feel like this – but I think it is something to do with the impact of the first film and the realisation of how a black movie made me feel. Or maybe how having a movie which attracts a young black audience makes me feel: as with the first film, the majority of the audience at our showing was young and black and very much not the kind of audience you see at most Marvel films. It’s huge, and feels important.

Meanwhile, Andor continues to be the best Star Wars ever made. It’s lazy to call it “Star Wars for grown-ups” but it’s a proper adult thriller set in the universe, and has some absolutely terrific acting in it. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, I would recommend it.

Things I’ve been writing

Not much, is the quick answer. Those two days spent mostly flat on my back meant that I couldn’t write so much – this is easily the longest piece that I’ve written since last weekend – and what writing I did was mostly “manually, in a notebook” which barely counts.