Stepping away from Twitter

I’ve not been on Twitter since around Christmas, and I don’t miss it that much. I’ve had time away before but this time I don’t think I’m going back. There was a time when this would have seemed unimaginable.

Back in October 2010, I wrote about why I loved twitter. This was a tool that had “introduced me to some amazing people, found me work, and helped me discover events and books that I might otherwise have missed.” It was a place for friendly small talk, a little like very slow IRC.

But even then, I pointed out that Twitter was an interesting mix between protocol, platform and people; and it needed all three for success. For a long time, the platform was a problem, with constant outages proving frustrating.

Once the platform became stable, Twitter started pushing for growth, which meant bringing in more users and having them look at the platform more often. They soon discovered that controversy provided a more energetic site, with better engagement metrics. That growth has come at the cost of the site’s friendliness. Buzzfeed’s piece on How the Retweet ruined the Internet is worth a read on this.

Even with lots of keywords on mute (including ‘Trump’ and ‘Corbyn’) Twitter just felt angry lately. A lot of the problems could have been easily fixed – the bots are hardly well disguised; and it would be easy to filter out people sending agressive statements to strangers (if you’re using the c-word to a stranger, you’re probably not a nice person).

I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve been enjoying newsletters, particularly some small ones aimed at a couple of dozen people; and I feel heartened by the slow return to blogging. Promoting things is perhaps harder, but that might not be a bad thing. But I’ll miss the friendly strangers popping up on my computer.

PS – There’s a lovely piece by Robin Sloan, (“Social media platforms should run small, and slow, and cool to the touch.“)

My first walk of the year

Last weekend was my first proper walk of 2020. It was also my first trip with Brighton Explorer’s Club – I joined a while back, but hadn’t managed any of the events before now.

The group was friendly, and it’s good to have more people to go hiking with. Mount Caburn is quite a familiar walk – I went in 2012 with Lou Ice, and more recently with the British Pilgrimage Trust – but weather and light can transform a landscape. We could see weather coming in across the Ouse Valley, and avoided the worst of it. And a little rain is a fair price to pay for rainbows and some incredible light:

Back pains prevented this weekend’s planned walk to Ashdown Forest, but I’m doing my 10,000 steps a day to build up strength a little. I have two big hikes planned this year, in March and May/June, so I need to recover quickly.

Looking back at my blog

I recently re-read my whole blog archive. 12 years is a long time, and the word count was the same as three average-sized novels. The review was more fun than I expected. There was a playfulness to blogging when I started, which has now moved over to Twitter and Facebook. These days, a lot of people seem to use blogging mostly for Really Big Thoughts, which are then linked to from the streams. Which make sense, as few people are following blogs these days, but I miss having both those modes.

When I first started blogging, around 2000, I decided not to be negative in my posts. While I was far from happy for parts of the 2007-19 period, the memories I’d recorded were positive ones, and the bad vibes were lost. Looking back, being reminded of capers and shows and friends was a lovely feeling.

The biggest surprise was seeing my writing take shape over a longer period. There was a feeling of potential, which I seem to have lost recently. That’s not in the sense of having losing or wasting potential – I mean that I used to approach my writing in a more open and enthusiastic manner. I was excited by so many things: new journalism, live performance, reality hunger, new aesthetic, networked realism. It was good to be reminded of this. That passion and potential has gotten lost along the way, which might be why I’ve had so much trouble with writing recently. More play, less planning.

And You’re not my Babylon, released in 1994 and posted about in 2012, is still one of the greatest songs ever written.

(Technical note – turning the WordPress XML archive into a Kindle file was more of a faff than I planned. I used to be pretty good at XSLT but, in the end, I googled for a script someone else had made. Then, rather than build the .mobi file from scratch, I loaded the HTML into word to produce a doc I could transmit with the send-to-kindle app. I wonder if simple tasks like ‘read my blog on my kindle’ will always be a drag?)


I started 2020 on a Brighton rooftop, with a view of fireworks all along the beach. Seeing rockets launch from so many different places reminded me of New Year in Goa, but here the view was better, with the fireworks exploding below us, the reflection of the bigger bursts lighting up the sea.

Despite recovering from being sick (why I am so often ill on New Years?) it was a good NYE – catching up with neglected old friends, an 18th birthday party, then a relaxing chat with more old friends.

No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals. I also want to look into carbon offsetting my activities over the year. I know this is not a solution, but I think it’s important to be aware of the costs of my activities (with money as a proxy for CO2), and to make some sort of public commitment towards fixing the very real problems that are coming.

One big change with 2020 is that Brexit is now inevitable. I’m less depressed about this than I expected to be. Remain never really came up with an alternative way out of the mess we were in, with another referendum being a terrible idea. Now that the government has a majority, it has to ensure a Brexit that work. While the evidence has been the this project will overwhelm and defeat any attempt to deliver it, the onus is not on the leavers to prove the doubters wrong, and make the country a better place for everyone.

While 2020 is not technically the start of the 20’s, everyone knows that it actually is. I’ve seen a few commentators suggested that having a named decade after the doubts of the – teens? twenty-tens? – will make for a more certain world. Let’s see.

Some time back, in his newsletter, John Higgs wrote the paragraph below to his readers. It’s loose enough to allow the Barnum Effect to come into play, but it evokes the optimism that a new decade needs:

The 2020s will be a Golden Age in your life. It will not be the easiest of decades, but it will be the one where you are most fully yourself, when you are most proud of what you create and the period in which you act most in accord with your higher nature. In the far-flung future when people bring you to mind, it will be you in the 2020s they think of.

My favourite books of 2019

In 2019 I read 44 books, even fewer than last year’s total of 78. Books have been pushed out a little by comics and some very good long-form journalism, so maybe I should be including those in next year’s round-up?

I tried to be a little pickier about what I read this year; but, looking back at the few books I did read, some were underwhelming. Which is not to say there weren’t some excellent books, just that picking out ten favourites was easier than it should have been. Here they are, in title order.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Yes, it’s another attack on social media, but this is a particularly thoughtful book. With so much time spent on these platforms, our use of them should be carefully considered.

The Future Starts Here by John Higgs

This was a great, optimistic book about the future. Doom and gloom sells well, but there’s a need for positivity about what lies ahead of us. Higgs is cynical where he needs to be, but still finds reasons to be hopeful.

The Heartland by Nathan Filer

About to be re-released as ‘This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health’, The Heartland didn’t get the attention it deserved. It’s a clear, lucid and moving book about mental health.

Immediatism by Hakim Bey

Discussed in May

Lanny by Max Porter

A slim novel, but a dense one. Porter uses typography and short paragraphs to produce an amazing chorus of voices in an English village. The book feels both mythic and timely, tapping into the currents of Brexit and folk horror. It’s also exciting to read a book which pushes the form of the physical page. I read it in a single sitting, with no electronic interruptions. This is a book that requires and justifies being read in that way.

Loose Connections by Johann Hari

Another book on mental health, and one I was very suspicious of. The book was more nuanced and important than the newspaper extracts implied. As austerity drags on into another decade, there are serious questions to be asked about how often we’re using mental health as a way to avoid facing the effects of economics.

Marvel Comics by Sean Howe

Discussed in May

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

Discussed in November

Then it fell apart by Moby

Yes, Moby is an appalling person. Despite that, I love the vulnerability and quietness of his prose style.

William Blake Now by John Higgs

Discussed in November

Stone ghost in Sussex

(The outing from this post took place in early November. It’s taken me a while to finish this, but I wanted to share it)

Sussex has never felt all that rural to me. Even though I grew up running through fields and woodlands, I lived in a suburban housing estate. I was as captivated by TV and early computer games as I was by the countryside. And the land around the estate didn’t feel particularly wild. There were few large animals, and the only danger came from ‘strangers’.

Buncton Church, near Steyning, is only a few miles from where I grew up. From the road, there is only a small sign in a lay-by, and some steps going into the trees. I had been driven there with my friend Sooxanne by Matt Pope, who was going to show us the church. The path from the road to the church enters a small wooded valley, crossing a spring-fed stream before rising towards the church. If you were designing a rural church setting for a video game, this is the sort of thing you’d come up with.

One of the things I love about the world is how incredibly textured it is. Everything is rich and detailed, if you know enough about the subject. The church is 900 years old, and Matt showed us how the stones had been brought together from other buildings. Some Roman bricks had been used in the church wall, and Matt showed us how their centre isn’t properly fired, retaining a grey clay colour.

We were at the church to visit a sheela-na-gig. Or, rather, we were there to visit the absence of one.

A Sheela-na-gig is a church sculpture of a naked, sexual, female figure. I’d first heard the word as a teenager in the PJ Harvey song, which I first heard on a mix tape a friend made me. That song has the sort of energy you’d expect from these figures (which are often – with  some sexism – referred to as ‘grotesques’). The figures tend to occur in the West of Britain and in Ireland, and it is rare to have one so far into the South East.

This particular Sheela-Na-Gig we’d come to visit might have originally been a sculpture of Adam. The area between the statue’s legs was hacked out long ago, possibly removing a penis. There is also a space opposite the statue which has been renovated at some point, that might once have housed a corresponding Eve. The figure had likely been in the Buncton church for centuries, since it was built.

There is a lovely description of Buncton church in Justin Hopper’s book The Old Weird Albion. The passage captures the strange, mystical peace of the place, and its feeling of dense age. Justin refers back to Arthur Beaton Cooks’s 1923 book, Off The Beaten Track in Sussex, with its description of Buncton as seeing “the survival of old rites, which began in pagan times, and did not entire change with the advent of Christianity… One may regard the hill-top as being as near to Christ as to Wodin”. The church does feel lost in time, with the weathered gravestones, leaning as if tired.

The church interior is a simple space, with wooden altar and a few small pews. The walls are simple and painted white apart from one place, where a fleur-de-lys pattern is visible “as if a hole had been opened in the history of the space”. And then there is the Sheela-na-gig. All that remains is a gap, “another spirit added to Buncton’s swirling maze”.

The Buncton Sheela-na-gig had been famous. It was conveniently located for local pagans who wanted to visit one of these statues without a long journey. Votive offerings of flowers were sometimes left at the statue, which most people saw as a good thing, although they were less enthusiastic about the fertility rituals that sometimes took place.

After centuries of controversy, on 10th or 11th November 2004, someone took a chisel and gouged the figure away, leaving splinters of stone at the pillar’s base. The police apparently had a suspect, but no action was every taken. There is not even a photograph of the sheela-na-gig in the church, as some people still see the “unchristian” carving as malign.

We walked out onto a field, looking in the plough-tracks for more traces of roman brickwork, maybe some vague clue to what was here before the church I found something too light and flat to be a natural stone, which was probably a mediaeval roof tile. I slipped it into my pocket.

The day was fading. A bright red moon hung just above the trees, and mist gathered on the field. This was a wilder Sussex than I had become used to after years of living in Brighton. That little church in Buncton, not even a road to reach it, felt like a time machine. And, even though its physical form is gone, the Sheela-na-gig is still there in the empty space.

A Sussex Hill Pilgrimage

I sometimes go too long without a proper walk. On the last Saturday in October, I needed to go to Lewes for an evening event, so I decided to walk there. There aren’t many routes from where I live – it’s basically Rottingdean/Balsdean or the Juggs Road. In the end, I took the train to Hassocks and walked via Wolstonbury Hill, following the line of the Downs west.

The climb up Wolstonbury is steep but, even so, I was surprised how hard I found it, and how many times I needed to stop for breath. I’d managed the steps of Swayambunath temple without stopping (thereby gaining enlightenment in this lifetime), but this less remarkable hill proved too much to do in one go.

Wolstonbury is a significant place to me. Every year, on ascension day, my school would climb the hill for a small religious service at the summit. The tradition was taken from an Oxford college when the school was young, in order to give the new institution a feeling of tradition. Standing on the top of the hill, blown about by a strong wind, the scene was very different, much bleaker than the summer day of the ceremony.

I have a weird memory from Halloween when I was 14 or 15, watching lights moving up the dark face of Wolstonbury. There were rumours of black masses being held there. The priest at the final Ascension Day service I attended described the ritual we were performing as a ‘white mass’.

Apparently Wolstonbury once had a chalk figure. The only mention I can find online is one in Hurst Life magazine, which claims it appeared in October 1959 as a rag week stunt. Apparently there is a photo of this figure from the Argus, and another in the Herald. The article goes on to say “(another) chalk lady was cut in Wolstonbury some ten years later”. I went to a National Trust talk a few years back, and I’m sure that they talked about a chalk figure that was placed on the hill by soldiers, who were training nearby for D-Day. Sadly, a new job means it will be some time before I can look into this any further.

From Wolstonbury I headed East, following the South Downs way towards Lewes. I’d done the route before a number of times and it felt slightly unengaging on such an overcast, blustery day. The ground was damp and there was little shelter from the wind, so I didn’t bother with any seated stops.

And, of course, the walk was haunted by Brexit. Someone had written slogans of protest on the gates near Ditchling Beacon. Some of it was depressingly racist, and I don’t know if it was the heartfelt pleas of a racist or a random troublemaker. But Brexit keeps intruding on my walks.

Sometimes, when I am walking alone I take it too fast, making my feet and legs ache, hurting myself. This was one of those days. I ground out the miles, wanting to reach Lewes ahead of the rain. I ran out of walk long before I ran out of time.

The only problem was, I’d arrived about four hours earlier than planned. So, I headed to the venue for the night’s event and sat quietly in a corner reading. It was fun to watch the show come together, and helping out when needed. The show was awesome – aerial, contortionists and dancers. But my favourite act was the roller-skate/hula act. Even on a small stage, the performer glided and flowed. It was a good day.

There was a Bullingdon Club in Colditz…

Flicking through a history book, I found something curious. There was a branch of the Bullingdon Club at the Colditz POW camp.

The Bullingdon is probably the most famous Oxford University drinking club. Past members include Boris Johnson and David Cameron and the club is notorious for its mean-spirited pranks. One example is dining at a restaurant, trashing the place, then paying for all the damages. It’s said that the initiation ritual was to burn a £50 note in front of a homeless person.

The description of the Bullingdon turns up in Henry Chancellor’s book on Colditz, based on an account by Michael Burn. Burn was a interesting figure, who dabbled with Nazism in its early days before taking up arms against the Germans as a commando, receiving the Military Cross. According to wikipedia, he might even have saved the life of the young Audrey Hepburn after the war. He also spent some time in Colditz.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, officers could not be made to work when they were in a POW camp. Which meant that they spent their days bored, struggling to pass the days. Some worked on escapes, others studied for qualifications, preparing for life after the war. And some passed their days in games of cards, winning or losing thousands of pounds which were due after the war.

Burn has described the social structure of Colditz: “There was a working class, who were the soldiers, the orderlies who had to work for the Germans. Then there were the middle class, officers from minor or major public schools, and then there was an upper class, with the Prominente and the Lords of the Realm… Curiously enough, when I arrived at Colditz I was asked to join this very smart mess nicknamed the Bullingdon, named after an exclusive club at Oxford. It was made up of the sons of landed gentry, and a few Lords, but none of them knew that I had been blackballed from the real Bullingdon when I was at Oxford before the war.

Burn was rare among his fellow prisoners, being a left winger. He gave lectures on Marxism and socialism in the POW camp; one senior officer said he would see Burn tried for treason after the war.

Silicon Beach: What’s great about tech in Brighton?

Way back in October, I was invited to the inaugural Silicon Brighton event at the Eagle Labs building on Preston Circus. A series of events are planned, looking at different areas of technology. The group has three aims:

  1. To bring technical companies together with the town’s talent, with the aim of ‘upskilling’ both employees and companies, specifically by looking at areas and technologies that need more people.
  2. Providing a space to talk about the ‘future of work’, making companies more aware of what potential staff are looking for.
  3. Promoting Brighton as a great place for technology companies.

I’m cynical about the possibilities of Brighton’s position as a technical hub, and the promotion of ‘Silicon Beach’ (see Whatever happened to silicon beach and what are the challenges?). But there are a lot of great things about the town that keep me working in the area.

Below is a list of some of these good points. Please let me know anything I’ve missed. I’m happy to make additions, and the selection below is mostly based around what came to mind as I was writing. There is also a problem in Brighton of seeing who is doing well. For example, I have very little visibility of who is doing great things at Eagle Labs or the Sussex University Innovation centre. One thing Brighton does need is a way of broadcasting these successes better.

Companies and organisations

Much of Brighton’s reputation is built upon its vibrant freelancing/agency scene, but we do have some huge companies, with Brandwatch being one of the most interesting and successful. Other large employers include Unity and Legal and General, and there are some exciting mid-sized startups such as Incrowd and Inshur.

Organisations supporting local businesses include Wired Sussex and the local Chamber of Commerce. There are also some great initiatives in the town such as the Brighton Digital Exchange and the Digital Catapult, which is supporting a growing immersive technology scene. We also have two great universities, with thriving technology departments.

Meetups and events

Some of the national surveys that have scored Brighton highly have reflected the strength of our meet-up scene. Specific technologies such as Java, Azure, Javascript through the Async, and data science (Sussex Data Science Meetup) all have meetups. The Sussex Founders group and podcast is a particularly exciting new arrival.  There are also general meet-ups, such as the weekly freelancers farm. Codebar in particular is providing free training to being more diversity into the local tech scene. Other groups working to improve diversity in the local technology industry include She says.

Brighton also has some world-class conferences, including Brighton SEO and UXBrighton. The annual Digital Festival provides a particularly important showcase for the technology/creative scene.

Coworking centres

Brighton has been a pioneer in providing decent coworking space, with the Skiff recently having its tenth anniversary. Platform 9 is a larger, more recent player. There are also accelerators such as the NatWest Accelerator, with 80 startups in the current cohort. There are definitely room for more such organisations, as each of these spaces has a very different atmosphere.

The Town

The main attraction of Brighton is the town itself. As well as the seafront and a national park nearby, there are the attractions of the North Laine. It’s a buzzing area, despite the toll gentrification has taken. There are exceptional restaurants and a range of interesting festivals, including the Brighton Festival and Fringe in May, a comedy festival etc. Brighton is also an hour from London, meaning connections with the city can be easily maintained – while having a (slightly) cheaper cost of living.

Brighton has been declared ‘the most hipster town in the world’, narrowly beating Portland in Movehub’s survey. While this was a marketing device, the towns were scored on various objective criteria, such as vegan restaurants, coffee shops and tattoo parlours. While these things might not be to everyone’s tastes, they reflect a town which welcomes new things.


I have written a couple of posts that are cynical about the idea of Silicon Beach. But Brighton is a great town and does have potential. The main challenge is working out how to support growth that works within the town’s limitation.

The big success in Brighton has been Brandwatch. They’ve navigated the challenges in the town and achieved momentous growth. Obviously, there is the question of whether this is an exception that proves the rule, or if Brighton can support multiple such successes. I’m hoping for the latter.

Is John Wick set in the Matrix?

Last month, I watched John Wick 3: Parabellum. It’s a very stylised film, never settling for realistic when incredible would be more interesting. The action sequences are tightly choreographed and have an amazing rhythm, particularly the fight in the Knife Shop (see? fantasy above reality). But some of the scenes feel like video games. Watching John Wick and Halle Berry’s character kill wave after wave of enemy soldiers is sometimes repetitive. Berry’s character even has a highly-trained dog which she sets on opponents as a special move.

John Wick is not the first film where I’ve felt like I was watching someone else play video games. Ghostbusters III had monsters attacking in waves, before a larger end-of-level boss arrived. Or there are scenes in World War Z where Pitt’s character sneaks past zombies who are in little action loops like video game enemies. Maybe CGI makes this sort of thing inevitable, but it still feels strange.

John Wick has that video game feel. But seeing Keanu Reeves as the lead actor, with Laurence Fishburne as a supporting character, there is a more obvious reference here; it made me feel like I was watching the Matrix movies. Particularly since both John Wick and Neo make the exact same request at points: “Guns. Lots of guns.”

In the Matrix films, the human characters live within a simulated world which turns out to have been created based on the 1990s. Agent Smith explains during the films that the first versions of the Matrix were designed as utopias, where the humans lived with total happiness. “It was a disaster. No one accepted the program. Entire crops [of people] were lost.

So the machines had created an imperfect world, like the real one. But, as we see from the plot of the Matrix films, it’s not entirely successful. When Morpheus recruits Neo, he asks him if the world seems entirely real.

“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

The 1990s-based world didn’t work out well for the machines. The humans still realised something was wrong – or at least a few of them did. These people were driven to carry out shocking acts of violence in the Matrix. Maybe a new Matrix would be built, more suitable to these people. One that allowed them to indulge their violent fantasies.

I’m not the only person to have said this, but John Wick is Neo. The 4th John Wick film and the 4th matrix film are going to be the same movie.