Monthnotes: July 2021

I stayed close to home during July, not travelling more than a handful of miles away. While I did the same thing during a few months of 2020/1, this feels very different. I’m in the middle of the countryside which feels much less stressful than a large town. I’m enjoying time in nature, spotting new flowers and mushrooms appearing as the summer rolls on.

A lot of my walks have been with two dogs, Blue and Rosie. Rosie is too young for much walking, but I’ll take Blue out for a couple of miles most days. While my weight remains constant, Blue is looking good (the only Labrador I’ve met with hips). Stats wise, I’ve not done much: a total of 340,287 steps, with a daily maximum of 18,068 and an average of 11,342 steps (compared with 10,766 in April 2020’s lockdown). The main issue is that walking is all intentional and takes up a lot of time compared with, say, going to the shops or meeting up with friends for daily exercise.

Media wise, I’ve only finished a couple of books and don’t think I’ve watched any movies. I do read a lot of articles from RSS feeds on my kindle, and I’ve been getting back into watching TV again. The Mandalorian was an excellent fusion of space opera and spaghetti western. Atlanta was far weirder than expected and I’m looking forward to season 3.

I managed to watch two whole seasons of Snowpiercer, based on a recommendation on the Technoccult newsletter. It’s a fun show and compelling enough for me to keep watching. It’s set in the future, when a failed climate change solution has sent global temperature plummeting. The only remnants of humanity are living in a giant metaphor for the class system (a train that travels round the world).

A lot of this makes no sense – why would you use glass so much when it can’t be replaced easily? Who maintains the track? It’s nonsense, but it’s brisk, well-made nonsense. The acting has gripped me too, making it easy to believe when characters are seeing sunlight for the first time in years.

In the midst of everything, I also spent a week playing the rest of The Last of Us. I written in the past about what a nasty, cynical game I found it. I found aspects of the story revolting, particularly how the player was railroaded into immoral and wanton revenge, but the action setpieces and horror were compelling. But I suspect I’m done with PS4 games for a while. Nothing has come close to Death Stranding.

I’m finding the new job a little harder than expected. I think that’s a combination of moving to a new platform and remote onboarding. One of the things I was aware was lacking at Amex was the onboarding, and I tried to improve that as we expanded our teams. I now see that I should have been trying even harder than I did. Still, I have this weekend to recharge, and I’m going to try some new things next week.

One other thing I did this month was quit caffeine. I decided to stop immediately and deal with it. In retrospect, not a good idea. I lost a couple of days to a vicious headache, although I’d timed the acute phase to be over a weekend. I then had a while feeling laggy, sleeping through my alarm. I already feel positive changes – mostly smoother changes in energy through the day – but I’m still not feeling as alert as I was. If past experience is any guide, I’ll soon be waking up more easily, have more energy in the afternoons, and feel less caffeine jankiness.

Ley lines and Brexit

Throughout 2021, I’ve been writing a monthly page about ley lines in Bodge magazine. I assumed this was a long way from the things I’ve written about Brexit, but a link has emerged.

I recently read Seekers of the Linear vision, Paul Screeton’s history of ley research from 1921 through to the early 90s. The book has a lovely wistful tone as it retells some countercultural history, along with reminiscences of the people involved. It also has a tantalising bibliography.

One of the most important figures in the study of leys is John Michell, whose book The View Over Atlantis started the ley-line revival in the 60s, as well as shifting the topic into earth mysteries. Michell is a fascinating figure, an old Etonian who wrote on subjects including the Shakespeare authorship controversy, defences of Michael X, and arguing against the prosecution of Gay News for printing James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. (He was also responsible, rather dubiously, for the Hip Guide to Hitler, which reprinted supposedly amusing or supposedly insightful statements by the dictator).

One of the major causes pursued by Michell was anti-metrication. In 1970 he founded the Anti-Metrication Board, and produced various pamphlets. Michell opposed the metric system on the basis that the imperial system had links to divine systems used in a pre-historic golden age. As Screeton writes, he was “defending the sacred measures against an arbitrary system preferred by Brussels administration”.

Michell organised a grand fete in the grounds of Rupert Lycett Green’s house, which was described as looking like “the sun setting on the British empire“. Around the same time, in 1971, Michell was involved in the first Glastonbury festival, siting the pyramid stage at the intersection of two leys.

Michell became an inspiration to the ‘new right’ through his interest in ‘radical traditionalism’. He described some of his views as ‘mystic nationalism’, seeing Britain as a sacred island. He also apparently believed in racial segregation. Quoting from Wikipedia, “[Michell] believed that communities should be led by a strong leader who personified the solar deity. This embrace of the Divine Right of Kings led him to believe that Queen Elizabeth II should take control of Britain as an authoritarian leader who could intercede between the British people and the divine“.

Elsewhere in the book, Screeton refers to a controversy where the members of the National Front briefly became interested in ley lines, which I’ve only heard of from a paragraph in Seekers of the Linear Vision. (Screeton objected to this strongly, describing the bulk of ley hunters as revolted by “elite organisation as practised by fascists“).

The link between Michell and Brexit is nothing more than the alignment of a few chance points, but it would definitely looks worth digging into further. If I ever get round to working on that Brexit and Hiking book, maybe…

Monthnotes: June 2021

June was a month of transition. While I moved out of my Brighton flat in May, there were loose ends to tidy up. I also did a little travelling: house-sitting in Norwich and visiting the Wirral. But, for the time being I’m in the middle of nowhere and finding space to relax.

My walking has been very much a maintenance dose, making sure I get a minimum level of exercise – my maximum was 31,724 (a day on the Pennine Way), and my average was a meagre 11,899. But walking has been great fun with these two as company:

I spent my birthday in Hebden Bridge, exploring the town a little and catching up with some friends. I walked a section of the Pennine Way and I’m happy to report the Landrover landmark is still there. It’s such a part of the route that it appears in the guidebook. (A similar sight on the South Downs Way, the old tank, was recently removed)

Also, I loved the chai boat, which travels between towns on the canal

Reading-wise, I’ve mostly been finishing books I started months ago. Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing on the other hand was read over a few days. Most interesting to me was her discussion of attention. In combination with Cal Newport’s A World Without Email it got me thinking about how the world is set up for interruption and distraction (for example, having to turn off multiple notifications when installing a new Mac). So, I’m taking advantage of being in the countryside to do far less, and practise doing one thing at a time.

I don’t recall watching any movies during the month, and was mostly dipping into TV shows. Pose was fantastic, but I don’t seem to have the concentration it deserves.

One of the loose ends that needed tidying was moving on from American Express. I enjoyed the job, and loved the team I was working with. However, I was disappointed that a number of commitments made when I joined were not kept. It’s a shame, as there was a lot of good work to be done there. I do think I learned some useful lessons, and my skills are much sharper for being there.

The new job started three weeks ago, and I’m loving it so far. Working for a consultancy means joining two companies at once, and doing this while remote is a little strange. I love the idea of coding as a cottage industry, operating microservices from an old farm building in the middle of nowhere.

The End of the Pandemic? (Day 463)

My friend Laura told me something she’d read about the 1918/9 flu, that people quickly forgot the details of that time. I can already feel some of the details of this pandemic disappearing. It was only re-reading some of my old posts on the topic that I recalled the mood around those early daily briefings, where everyone stopped work at five for them, and I’d watch with a drink in hand.

I don’t want to lose the lessons of the pandemic, or to forget how miserable the winter lockdown of 2021 was. But, at the same time, it does feel like things have turned a corner. I am vaccinated and I have left Brighton. I was so taut and angry and hateful while I was stuck in one place with no escape; now, living in the countryside I feel better, and it’s time to move on. My fear has lifted.

Back in March, Rosy said that I talked and read about the pandemic more than most people. That was one of the problems with facing lockdown in isolation: you couldn’t calibrate normality from the people around you. I assumed everyone was doom scrolling the same as me, following all the angles on the pandemic. I must have been both tedious and triggering for a lot of people.

But it now feels like time to draw a close on my covid journalling. As Dr Manhattan once said, ‘nothing ever ends’ and this pandemic will continue – my second vaccination, the ongoing death toll, the memorials, the inquiries – but it all feels less urgent now.

One thing I don’t want to forget is the awfulness of the government, and the lies it told and the shortcuts it took. Vice magazine has an article listing Every Single Promise Broken By the Tories Over Lockdown and it’s worth reading. It only covers the first year, but it’s quite something. And let’s not forget the blatant headline grabbing lies, when the government proposed ridiculous and implausible ‘moonshots’, later quietly abandoned. Or the ventilator challenge, where the government shunned experienced firms in favour of a PR-friendly approach to well-known companies such as Dyson and JCB.

And on 24/5/21 – over a year after the pandemic started – the government announced a pilot plan to support self isolation. It includes:

a range of initiatives including providing alternative accommodation for people in overcrowded households, social care support such as increasing existing social care support for vulnerable adults and providing ‘buddying’ services for people whose mental health has been affected by lockdown and the variant outbreaks, and language communications support for individuals where English isn’t their first language.

I mean, really? Were these things not obviously needed from the start? I was miserable while locked down in a large comfortable flat, and can only imagine how hard things must have been for many others in worse situations. People’s mental health was shattered by this, and there was no support. Britain appears to have a mental health policy advertisements suggesting you talk to your mates, and that was not good enough.

Then we have the uneven economic effects of what happened. Failures of State pointed out that “One in three low-paid workers was furloughed or lost their jobs compared with one in ten of the higher-paid“. A lot of people have done well financially out of the pandemic, while others have suffered awfully with no support. The effect on university leavers in particular is said to likely be worse than people who graduated during the financial crisis, and many people’s careers never recovered from that.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve wondered what the government’s long-term strategy for dealing with covid is. Now, it looks to be settled on ongoing vaccination and a (so far unstated) acceptable annual death toll. Although there is no discussion into the long-term impacts of long covid, which makes me very uncomfortable. Zero covid might be brutally difficult, but the alternative is hard on the unlucky. There is still little support for hundreds of thousands of people suffering from long covid.

The last 15 months have been strange, hard and surprising. I’ve avoided the coronavirus, but I’ve faced other challenges. Now it’s a good time to tell myself I’m out on the other side, even if that’s not strictly true. New normals, and all that.

I’m currently living a few miles from the Download Festival site. The festival went ahead, despite the restrictions, as an experimental government pilot. Hearing the sound of bands, although quieter than previous years, was great. Slowly, the world is coming back.

Review: Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Tom McTague’s recent profile of Boris Johnson, Minister of Chaos portrays Johnson as a master of narrative. It’s a well-written piece, but missed a number of obvious points. When McTague writes about Johnson’s condemnation of the Super League plans, he fails to mention Johnson’s earlier tacit approval of them. Mic Wright’s newsletter is a good overview, criticising the article for “barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths”. It was well-written, but I learned little from it.

Tom Bower’s The Gambler, a biography of Boris Johnson, is not very well written. Despite its many flaws (oh, so many flaws) I learned from the book, in part because of its biases. A friend recently told me that you can understand a lot about the media from hearing it talk about things you know. Discussing computer programming (specifically the Imperial College coronavirus model), Bower wrote:

Imperial’s model … was based on a programming code called either ‘C’ or Fortran that had apparently been used twenty years earlier by NASA for Mariner 1. Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies. One file alone contained 15,000 lines of code.

I mean… Yes? But not really. There are basic errors and inaccuracies in this simple quote. Bower’s biases also sometimes make this book awkward. Bower regurgitates many of the flawed arguments from the lockdown sceptics, which is not inspiring. His constant accusations that Corbyn is a “Marxist and anti-semite” are an over-simplistic view of Corbyn from someone who wrote a biography of him. But then, Bower’s wikipedia entry is very clear that, while his Corbyn book involved an significant retraction, “[he] neither apologised nor paid any money to the complainant or the lawyers”. However, this wikipedia entry cannot deny that republishing the claims cost the Daily Mail a large amount of money. Bower is not one for in-depth fact-checking.

However, Bower is interesting as he attempts to defend every poor decision and gaffe Johnson has made. While I still think Johnson’s Spectator columns were racist, I can at least now see what he might have been trying to satirise with them. Looking at some scenes from another point of view was also eye-opening. For example, the gaffe with Johnson buying water-cannons was retold as a nasty trap laid by Theresa May. This is quite the revelation, given the usual portrayal of May as a dull and unemotional politician. This is certainly the shrewdest, most devious thing I’ve seen her accused of doing.

Bower’s book is also pro-Brexit, and in harping on about this, I saw some stronger-than-usual cases for Brexit, which was illuminating. But the main strength of Bower’s book was in its portrayal of Johnson’s childhood, a time of almost gothic unpleasantness. His father, the reality-TV star Stanley Johnson is revealed to be a vicious domestic abuser, and there were wretched periods in Johnson’s childhood. While these do not excuse his appalling behaviour, I feel more sympathy towards him.

Two portrayals of Johnson, one well-written and one not. But I think I learned more from the poorly-written one.

Book review: Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner

At the start of May, I read Alan Warner’s novel, Kitchenley 434. In a period where I was finding it very hard to concentrate, I quickly read through this slow book about a man working as housekeeper for a prog rock star. While I loved the book’s pace, this Spectator review by Jon Day took a very different view:

There are some very strange moments in this novel: a six-page disquisition on where to hang a washing line, and 12 pages on the procedure of drawing the house’s curtains (my heart sank when, 70 pages after reading this, I encountered the sentence: ‘Once again it was that time: to commence the drawing of the curtains throughout Kitchenly Mill Race’). It’s a book stuffed with untelling detail: ‘The pump did good work, but it needed frequent maintenance to stop it running rough’; and ‘half the house had been done in modern 13-amp rectangular peg BS1363 plugs and the rest in pre-war round peg’. If this sounds like an interestingly Oulipian experiment in the limits of exhaustive description I can only say that it doesn’t read like it.

While very little happened in the book, there was a great deal of tension. Part of this was wondering if the genre would suddenly switch – the absence of the house’s owner felt like a haunting. Sometimes, the book veered into comedy, but somehow kept everything together.

It was a book that showed rather than told – while the narrator told us things in great detail. Every description increased our understanding of the main character’s personality, making the reader unsure whether to trust him or not. Nothing needed to happen, rather the joy was in the details, in experiencing someone else’s consciousness.

One of the things I love about a good novel is how how every little detail, every word builds towards the setting. It reminds me of fractals, how each detail is a smaller-scale representation of a larger image.

This was an odd book, but incredibly fulfilling.

Plotting the Liverpool Ley Line

Over the past five months, I’ve been working on a monthly page in Bodge, the Liverpool Arts Lab magazine, called Ley Lines for Fun and Profit. As part of this, I began plotting strange and interesting points in Liverpool and looking for alignments between then using GIS software.

Even with only ~30 points, there are already promising alignments emerging, such as these two which run between Eleanor Rigby’s grave and the Mathew Street Manhole, via Calderstone’s park. I’ve put an interactive map online.

One of my favourite things about ley lines is that the arrangements have been shown to be a statistical quirk. While a lot of people have dismissed the idea for this reason, it makes me more excited. A surprisingly small number of points can produce some fascinating alignments. Alignments of random points are inevitable, particularly at the threshold of 4-5 points used to make a ‘classic’ ley line. Given the power of modern Geographic information Systems it should be possible to find some incredible geographical coincidences.

A few years back, I generated the alignments between Brighton pubs. During lockdown, I followed the most interesting of these with Ben Graham and found that it included some fascinating resonances. It would be easy to believe that there is real significance to these lines, even if they are only examples of apophonia.

Since Bodge is produced by the Liverpool Arts Lab, I thought it would be interesting to try to find a Liverpool ley line. I’ve been plotting points related to the Beatles and Cosmic Trigger. I’ve added some items from Atlas Obscura. I am hoping to find some items related to Julian Cope as well as Courtney Love’s time in Liverpool. I’m listing the ones I’ve found here, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions, which you can add at this link.

(I recently received a great suggestion, Liverpool’s Bond Street, which is the site of a time slip).

So far, I’ve gathered about 35 points. I’ve yet to find a truly convincing ley, but I’m starting to see possible candidates. Hopefully, as I add more places of interesting, something all emerge that tells an amazing story. I’m visiting Liverpool at the end of the month, and I hope to trace one of these lines and see what I find on the ground.

A new feed for my audio content

I have set up a new site, audio.orbific.com, which contains a feed for audio recordings. Basically, it’s a podcast, but without the consistency people expect from podcasts nowadays. It will contain stories, voice messages, field recordings, interviews and so on. The first couple of recordings are up. You can follow them there, or watch here for mentions of significant ones.

The first recording is a simple voice message:

The site contains more details, as well as pages for other content.

I want to spend the rest of this post talking about the technical details of setting up a podcast. One of the joys about podcasting when it first emerged around 2004 was that it was a clever hack, built on the RSS file format, enabling people to automatically download files onto an iPod. It’s worth reading Warren Ellis’s evangelical 2004 piece where he tries explaining why this is important. About 15 years later, podcasts are now huge, with Spotify signing a reported $100 million deal with Joe Rogan – but it’s taken a long, long time to reach that point.

One of the initial attractions of podcasting was its grass roots nature. They were made by hobbyists, and there was little way of capturing analytics to sell advertising. Now there are various platforms available which will set up a podcast. Some of these are free, but make their money from advertising (such as Spotify’s anchor platform); others take a fee for hosting.

Setting up a podcast is now easy, compared to the instructions in Ellis’s 2004 piece. But I faced three main issues:

  • I wanted to maintain control of feed’s address on a domain I owned.
  • I didn’t want to pay large monthly fees for hosting the podcast
  • I didn’t want to be part of a surveillance mechanism designed to sell advertising.

I considered a WordPress plugin, but that was a little more complicated than I wanted. In the end, the ideal set up was a Jeckyll static site with audio files hosted on Amazon S3. There was a template for this on GitHub that I could adapt. In the end, it took me a couple of hours to get working, and was relatively simple, although the work would be too much hassle for a lot of people:

  • I needed to fork a GitHub project. The GitHub tools means the site can be directly edited on the web without knowing about git, so it was not as hard as it might have been
  • The post files are edited in markdown
  • I had to edit the DNS for my domain to create a subdomain, and then point that to Github pages
  • I am using Amazon’s S3 to store the files. Setting this up was a drag, involving lots of forbidding warnings about making S3 buckets public.
  • I set up a Plausible analytics script to track visit. This was something I heard about from James Stanier, and allows site users to be logged without infringing their privacy (it doesn’t even require a GDPR opt-in).

If, after reading the above, you’re interested in doing something similar and want my help, get in touch. For me, the most difficult bit was finding the toolset I needed. That, and dealing with Amazon Web Services configuration, but that bit would be easy to swap out.

Walking the Brighton Pub Ley: an experiment

The threshold for how many places you need to generate ley-lines is surprisingly low. As computers became powerful enough to demonstrate this for mundane sites (like public toilets or pizza restaurants) mainstream ley line research died away. What remained of the subject was absorbed into new age thought, where the burdens of proof were lower.

Back in lockdown 3, I walked along a ‘synthetic ley’, the major north/south alignment of Brighton pubs. If you chart the lines between pubs, there is a large number of east-west alignments parallel to the seafront. Which makes sense, given that you would expect the town’s pubs would to be placed along the seafront and the main coast roads. There is however, one line which strikes roughly northwest, beginning at the Pull and Pump, then heading via the Bear Inn to the Swan in Falmer.

There was obviously no question of this line being constructed intentionally. Despite that, following the line threw up a number of synchronicities ands strangeness that would have strongly corroborated a line made of more ancient sites. It was a surprising result.

The first few sections were nothing special and I wondered if this was a waste of time. Ben pointed out the pub that hosted an early Festival 23 event, and the one where he first read poetry. They were some way off the line, however, even if they looked closer in real life than on the map.

Things became more interesting as we reached the North Laine. The line passed through the Prince Albert, one of Brighton’s most iconic pubs. From there, it entered the office block complex opposite, directly through a desk I’d worked at. An even bigger surprise came on the other side of these offices. The ley intersects the Brighton stone circle twice, but it actually passed through the 39th stone. A little later on it passed through a house I used to live in.

As well as personal resonances, there was the fact that the line passed through the Druid’s Head pub, perhaps hinting at where this line might have emerged? I’d not even realised that the Druid’s head was on the line – possibly it was closed when the dataset I had was generated. And then there were references to stellar alignments in the Bear and Swan pubs, referencing their respective constellation.

As a ley line, the Brighton Pub Ley is obviously just a matter of chance. Despite that, it was still deeply meaningful, on a personal level and a wider one. The experiment of creating this ley suggests that interesting work can be done using public GIS data and the right scripts to develop interesting, meaningful lines in any city.

Iteration 18: Palm Springs

On 415th March 2020, Palm Springs was finally released in the UK and I watched my 18th time loop movie. I watched it again last Saturday, on the 462nd March 2020. And it was just as good the second time! Out of all the time loop films I’ve seen this year, this one is probably my favourite.

One of the great things about Palm Springs is that it takes for granted that we’ve seen Groundhog Day (or Edge of tomorrow, or Happy Death Day – the film references all three) and we know how time loops work. Nyles, the main character, has been in this loop a very long time before the film starts. He’s passed through all the stages we know from Bill Murray’s character, such as trying to escape or learning new skills. Now he’s numb, drinking his way through the day, and may even have forgotten much of his life before the loop.

Palm Springs is set at a wedding. While this is a special day for most people there, Nyles has attended so many times that he doesn’t bother to dress up, and even sometimes opens a can of beer in the ceremony. Early in the film, he accidentally brings another person, Sarah, into the loop (she is brilliantly described in a Guardian review as a “velvet-eyed car crash of a woman”). She is horrified by the situation, but tries to make the best of it.

Having multiple people in the time loop allows for some interesting discussions about how they should spend their lives. The existential horror of being stuck in the same day comes across well. One thing I particularly loved about the movie was how the bleached-out blue-skies of California, the swimming pools, all added to the mood.

Spoilers follow

There are so many great touches in this film. I like the way one character finds peace in repeating the same day, enjoying being with his family, even while he feels sad at not seeing his children grow up. Then there is Nana, who more likely than not is repeating the day, just enjoying the wedding, and not bored at all.

The characters were definitely drinking in an unhealthy manner. Of course, they had no consequences to deal with, and no fear of addiction – but the ease with which Nyles popped open his cheap beers was alarming. It turned out the original idea for the film was a ‘mumblecore Leaving Las Vegas’, which I can see. Although that sort of drinking makes me very relieved for the main character. Just think how easy it would have been to start the repeating day with a hangover.

The film asked the same question as many of these time loop films about how we should behave when there are no consequences. The assumption of these time-loop films is often that there is a single universe reset; rather than a multiverse where people continue living (possibly even a version of the looper?). I’ve only seen this grappled with in Repeaters, but it’s an important question. At one point, Nyles tells Sarah, “Pain matters! What we do to other people matters!” but he doesn’t always follow through on this.

Apparently, multiple endings were filmed for Palm Springs, before the final one was chosen. I’d love to see each of those other versions, and figure out if any seem truer than the one that was picked.

The night before re-watching Palm Springs I watched Source Code. Actually, I slept through a fair chunk of it, which is a pretty good way to watch that film. While this appears on the list of wikipedia’s list of Time Loop movies, it is clearly not a time loop, since the main character is actually in an engineered simulation. On top of this, the premise of the film makes no sense, since the rules of this simulation are not that clear.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration (in film): 13 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 8 minutes
  • Reset point: death or sleep
  • Fidelity of loop: everyone currently in the loop wakes at the same point, but the number of people in the loop changes
  • Exit from the loop: a correctly-timed explosion