The Secret World of Crisps

Amelia Tate’s recent Guardian article ‘How do you reduce a national dish to a powder?’: the weird, secretive world of crisp flavours was an incredible piece of writing, giving the reader glimpses of a very strange world. It had some ideas that would not be out of place in a William Gibson novel. The first paragraph sets the tone:

[They] have LinkedIn profiles that tell you their job titles. But this is where things get odd: search the name of the company they work for – a name I have agreed not to print – and you’ll find little information about the work Reuben and Peggy do. You could click through every page on their company’s website and leave with no idea that it creates the most beloved crisp flavours in the world.

The article talks about the work of seasoning houses, the companies that create new flavours for crisps. It turns out there are specialist flavours for each country, along with limited edition runs, all catering for different palates. Sweet Mayo Cheese Pringles. Lasagne flavour Lay’s. Rose-petal crisps. Cola or butter caramel. Every flavour you can imagine.

There are characters, such as a Michelin-starred chef who wears “two smart watches, one on each wrist,” and tales of research trips, as well as references to surveillance tools used by Pepsico (owner of the Walkers and Lays brands) to spot growing trends:

PepsiCo uses a tool that “slurps up” every restaurant menu on the internet. “You look at which ingredients are starting to feature; you can see the number of restaurants in Europe using smoked paprika, the incidence of black salt in restaurants in such and such a region,” he says.

It’s feels like a strange science fiction novel with lines like “Kellanova also uses AI, which Merzougui says can predict trends up to 10 years in advance.” But this also feels too strange to have been predicted by a novelist – a world where sophisticated computer systems are used to sell crisps.

Why I Love Mastodon (and why I won’t be running my own instance)

In December, I moved from Twitter to Mastodon. It’s a lot quieter, but the interactions feel like Twitter’s early days – friendly, more interactive, and not overwhelmed by news and ‘trending topics’. There’s a feeling people are still figuring out how this works, how best to use the medium. It’s going to be some time before I have a network as engaging as the one on twitter, but Mastodon has great potential.

(I still have the Twitter account as a way of receiving messages and contacting people, but my day-to-day posts are now written to my mastodon account)

A lot of Mastodon’s calmness comes from its design. Mastodon works more like email than a big social media site – your account is managed by a particular instance, which can interact with other instances. If an instance has poor moderation, or a large number of undesirable accounts, that entire instance can be disconnected from your own.

I like that Mastodon is a protocol rather than a platform. In the early days, Twitter had elements of a protocol, with a powerful API that allowed people to produce their own clients and websites based on it. Over time, Twitter restricted the power of the API, in order to protect its revenue. Eventually, Twitter began the transformation into a media company, privileging engaging (or enraging) posts over communication between friends. Now, all traces of openness of Twitter have gone as Musk recently closed down many third apps.

One great thing about having local instances in Mastodon is that each one can set its own local rules ,as described in a vice article. There is a server that only allows registrations at specific times, so new people can be welcomed. There is, which enforces constrained writing, with people banned from using the letter ‘e’. This is made up for by, where people play at being dolphins and are only allowed to use the letter e in messages. (Matt Webb wrote a brilliant essay on interactions between and

Local instances also means moderation can be applied locally. Hate speech can be banned completely, rather than suffering arguments with moderators about what is appropriate. If you don’t like the choices made by your local instance, you can move to another one. There’s no need to suffer anything like Instagram’s awkward (and shifting) definition of art as pornography. You can ban nazis, TERFs and trolls from the local instance.

Local instances also means that you become part of a community. I joined since a friend had decided to use it, and that saved me working out where to sign up. But I now feel a responsibility towards the instance. There are server fees to be paid, and moderation takes energy. I follow the site owner’s account to keep in touch with what’s happening.

I had thought about hosting my own mastodon instance, but I’m now aware of the work required for that. Most of all, I don’t want to take on the responsibility for moderation. Looking at the threads discussing moderation and the list of banned servers, there are some horrible people in the world. I don’t want to even have to think about the existence of paedophile mastodon instances, let alone be responsible for protecting a community from them. There was also a good essay On Running A mastodon Instance, which looked at some of the challenges (and joys) in running an instance.

For the moment, seem happy to absorb the impact of maintenance and moderation. Moderation is essential, but it is expensive and hard, as we’ve learned from the mass social media platforms. I quit Facebook in disgust at how its poor safeguarding had led to genocidal behaviour in places such as Rohingya. Mastodon makes the problems of moderation more explicit, making each community responsible for it. That is both a challenge and an opportunity.

How to Climb Everest

Climber Andy Kilpatrick once wrote a beautiful answer to the question of How to climb Mount Everest. He suggested starting with the 14 Peaks in Wales, and the Bob Graham round; moving on to the Muros while learning about climbing; then comes the Alps, Alaska, years of work, but developing a deep love and understanding of climbing. By then you’d have “enough climbing and incredible days on the hill to know that Everest is a waste of time.”

Everest has become a trophy, and climbing it is an achievement, but this achievement has changed over time. If you have a little skill and enough money you can find someone to take you up there, even if you’d be a danger to yourself and others.

At the height of the  2019 climbing season, sensational pictures appeared on the Internet, showing a long queue of climber waiting for the summit. These images have haunted me.

The drive to climb ever-higher reminds me of what happens to ants infected by the parasite dicrocoelium dendriticum, which includes both ants and cattle in its life-cycle. With the ants it changes their brains, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, even though this means they are likely to be eaten by grazing cattle. People can be similarly suicidal when they are close to the top of Everest, something known as ‘summit fever’. Being so close to their ambition, they are reluctant to turn back, even if continuing is not safe.

Everything I read about Everest makes it sound like a hell-hole. The journey itself is suffering, and expensive suffering too. The long queue took place in the ‘death zone’, where climbers cannot survive long without oxygen bottles – those same oxygen bottles that, once empty, litter the top of the mountain. GQ’s story about the queue did a good job of explaining the situation. There’s even a wikipedia article (link contains disturbing pictures) about one of the bodies on Everest that cannot be removed.

PS – There is a tenuous connection between Hove and Everest, as the man the mountain is named for is buried here. George Everest never actually saw this mountain and even protested the name as unsuitable for local use.

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.

A rainy day

Prevouisly, this weblog might have given the impression of a cavalier attitude toward preparation. This is probably the dregs of teenage suspicion against anything looking too much like ‘effort’. And, you know, the fact there are no pictures of Lou Reed, David Bowie or Kanye West in waterproofs.

Which is fine until you’re dealing with the rain. Throughout Saturday’s walk on the Pennine way we dodged the showers. Yesterday, the downpour started as we stopped for lunch and pretty much continued until the day’s end.

The rain soaked my trousers as I’d not had chance to put on waterproofs. Slowly my boots became sodden, every footstep squelchy and gross. And my poncho kept getting whipped away by the wind. 

I’m more of a fan of rain in theory than practise. Take Madonna’s song, which compares rain to love; this couldn’t be further from my experience of continual showers and drizzle. Listening back to Rain, I can tell Madonna hasn’t faced a wet day on the Pennine way. She is not someone who owns waterproof trousers.

As we approached Pen-y-ghent, the mountain was invisible. We never saw more than about 50-100 metres in front of us. We had no idea how far we had to climb until we reached the path at the summit. I have no idea what this mountain looks like.

The ascent was more challenging than we’d expected, with a little scrambling over rocks while high up. As there was a break in the rain I took off the poncho to stop it blowing about. We kept going, excited about the summit, and what the guidebook described as a “sublime shelter”. This turned out to be two sets of benches, well designed so that one set would always be out of the wind. It gave us somewhere to rest and eat, but to be called sublime, a shelter really needs a roof.

The views from the top of Pen-y-ghent were disappointing.

During the first day walking the Pennine way, David and I met two women who’d done it done years back. They told us they had seen only one afternoon of rain the whole time. An enviable experience, but it gives them little to talk about when the conversation turns to the Pennine Way’s reputation for bad weather.

The experience of waterlogged boots and clothing was unpleasant. But it was never dangerous, since we had a warm place to stay at the end. The weather could well have been worse – it was warm, at least. And I found myself enjoying the challenge, knowing that I could endure everything that the rain was throwing at me. I was content, maybe even happy. There were few places I would have rather been.

Lying in bed now, a little after 6, I can hear rain lashing the windows. My car is a little way off in Hawes. I’m not looking forward to setting out, but I’ll make the best of it.


My approach to walking can probably be summed up by my boots and how inappropriate they are.

My first long walk was in August/September last year. I’d done some epic day walks, but nothing longer. I’d been meaning to walk the South Downs Way for a long time – probably twenty years or more. Finally, I picked a date and committed to it.

I walked the route in my DMs. By the end of the fourth day, standing in bare feet was agony. I hobbled and limped my way through the last two days, aching but undefeated. And a lot of people asked me what I thought I was doing by walking in DMs. I figured it was better to walk in the wrong footwear than not at all.

The thing is, if I’d had to get the right boots, I wouldn’t have gone. Organising the walk, packing, and so on was enough trouble. If I’d had to invest in a expensive footwear, with all the doubt and uncertainty over that… the walk would not have happened. So I set out and dealt with the consequences. It wasn’t a great decision, but it was the right one. And, actually, a lot of people make hiking sound far too difficult.

Many years ago, the punk fanzine Sideburns printed a famous picture (later reprinted in Sniffin’ Glue). It showed three guitar chords and declared: “here’s one chord, here’s another, and another: now form a band”. The great thing about punk was that it made it seem easy to form a band and play music. And while punk spawned hundreds of terrible single-gig bands, it also produced raw and exciting bands that would never have existed otherwise. That punk spirit is an amazing thing.

And that’s the approach I have to hiking. It’s supposed to be simple, something anyone can do. You can make it as difficult as you like, or straightforward. You don’t even need to get to a trail: like Will Self, you can set out from your own door, and walk as far as you can. It doesn’t require exotic expeditions: Alastair Humphreys has written a lot about microadventures. You don’t even need to go anywhere new – the situationists came up with strategies for defamiliarising well-known neighbourhoods.

And I’m not the only person to have taken a slipshod approach to footwear. Even proper walkers like Tristan Gooley get this wrong. In the introduction to his Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Gooley describes a walk made in his twenties, from Scotland to London. Three weeks in, crossing the peak district, Gooley encountered some proper walkers, with all the right gear. They warned that he probably didn’t want to continue in his “£19 trainers”, then asked where he came from. Gooley took pride in shocking the walkers by saying he had come from Scotland.

I’ve got the boots now, but I still take pride in looking nothing like a proper walker.  In my heart, I’m not walking because I’m boring or middle-aged. In my heart, walking is subversive and thrilling. I’m not a walker. I’m…