Remembering how to write about something other than computer

I've lost track of all the people who've recommended this to me, but I resisted for a long time: I thought that I'd learned as much as I needed to know about Theranos from the coverage I'd read at the time. I eventually caved when a juror recommended it last month.

All those people were right! The full extent of the deception is staggering, and the tale of the rise and fall from the perspective of the journalist who uncovered it makes for compelling reading. The version of the story I had gathered was a combination of recklessness and fraud; I hadn't appreciated the descent into intimidation, nor had I understood how they came to be in that position. I think the initial intentions were good, but the refusal to accept the plain fact that the concept was too ambitious on too many axes to be practical is what led to the more malicious chapters. I wonder how things might have been different if Holmes had been willing to compromise, and just tackle one of the goals – no needles; small apparatus with vast functionality; instant results; glamorous healthcare experience; etc.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou


Sorry to go on about Anna Meredith again, but: we saw her band (drums, tuba, guitar, cello, and synths/clarinet/laptops) in concert this week. They were great! Even this tune – at the synthier/poppier end of her style – made great use of the live instruments.


Let's check in on how I fared on The Analogue January Challenge.


Commit to reading 3 – 4 new books during the month. […]

I did not read 3–4 new books. I finished one book, read another, and started two others. Close enough.


Commit to going for a walk every single day of the month. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Leave your phone at home: just observe the world around you and think.

I have not achieved this as stated, though I have made a conscious effort to not reflexively listen to music and podcasts whenever I'm walking around.

While at FOSDEM I deliberately stayed a 20-minute walk away from the centre of town, which meant I ended up walking for an hour or more every day: a very welcome opportunity to reflect and think alone during a crowded, overwhelmingly-social conference.


Hold a real conversation with 20 different people during the monthlong challenge. These conversations can be in person or over the phone/Facetime/Skype, but text-based communication doesn’t count (you must be able to hear the other person’s voice). To hit the 20 person mark will require some advance planning: you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.

Absolutely no problem, through a combination of meeting up with old friends, some colleagues from out of town visiting, and jury service. Obviously those things don't happen every month but it's nice to realise I actually do talk to a lot of people, even though I spend most days at home.

I also caught up via Facebook Messenger with an old friend I haven't spoken to in almost a decade, which reinforced my firm belief that Newport is flat-out wrong about text-based communication.


Participate in a skilled hobby that requires you to interact with the physical world. […]

I did not take up Brazilian Ju Jitsu or any other skilled analogue hobby.

The habit that I did take up reasonably effectively is writing for fun. Doesn't count under this rubric, but I find it very satisfying.

Oh – I have spent 15+ minutes every day for three weeks on Duolingo's French course. Again, doesn't count, but I have found it a valuable skill to build.


Join something local that meets weekly.

I started the process of volunteering at a local CoderDojo, but I have to run the DBS check gauntlet before I can actually do that.

Strictly speaking, I only achieved one out of five, but I feel like I have a strong claim to having made headway on three of the others. I'm okay with this!

In this interview for The Life Scientific, Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, describes sleeping arrangements while doing fieldwork with a young child:

My daughter was a terrible sleeper. […] The only place that she would sleep would basically be lying on me. I'd have to lie on my back, she would lie on my chest, and would eventually go to sleep; and I'd kind of manage to wiggle her off and get her next to me, and then of course she'd wake up, and she'd have to come back and lie on me again. So I was getting very little sleep and then going out into the field and doing these exhausting, long days.

I spent six days at the start of this year serving as a juror at Isleworth Crown Court. I served on two trials, each lasting 2–3 days.

The few people I spoke to beforehand who have served on juries in England before all advised me to “bring a (good) book”. There was a fair bit of waiting around, but I was lucky: I spent most of my time in trials and talking to other jurors. I barely read a chapter of Extrastatecraft. As someone who works from home at least four days per week, interacts with his colleagues primarily through text and video calls, and otherwise has very little interaction with adult humans, I actually found it refreshing to have a short commute every day to an “office” where I “worked” for solid blocks of uninterrupted time and socialized with my “colleagues” in the gaps. Of course, most jobs don't let you arrive at 10am and leave at 4pm, and over time the novelty would wear off and the trade-offs would become clearer again. In any case, I'm now wondering how to get more face-to-face interactions into my working week.

It's rare for 100 grown adults to be shepherded in a room, forbidden to leave and forced to make friends: several people independently said it felt like the first day at school again. I got to know 5–10 people from a variety of backgrounds in different stages of life. I'm not sure I'll run into them again, but I had meaningful conversations and learned many things. (Did you know that Ada Lovelace, the mathematician, lived and was married in Ealing, within walking distance of me? I didn't!)

The first two people I spoke to both happened to be Oxford alumni too. Given that less than 1 of the UK population went to Oxford or Cambridge, is a jury pool with at least 3% Oxford alumni seem representative? I can't find data showing education background per region which would directly answer this, but I did find that while around 13% of the UK's population in 2011 was in Greater London, around 26% of students admitted to Oxford in 2016-2018 came from Greater London. So – yes, I think this is probably about right.

Sylvan Esso – Die Young

Daughter – No Care


I came across this clap detection library some years ago, and it made me want to create Reichotron 3000: a piece of software that detects the rhythm ♪♪♪𝄾 ♪♪𝄾 ♪♪𝄾 ♪𝄾 and starts clapping along with you.

I've never found the time or inclination to write this. If you need an idea for the next Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon, why not steal this one? Someone's made an iOS app but it doesn't sound quite the same.


I have a morbid fascination with Cal Newport's writing. I did not get along well with Deep Work, even though I'm basically on board with the theory of reducing the interruptions that get in the way of achieving things. But is publishing six books which boil down to “stop using Twitter, and use the time to get your work done efficiently and take up some hobbies” really a good use of one's own advice?

His recent post The Analog January Challenge promotes a rarely-spotted quintuple verb: READ • MOVE • CONNECT • MAKE • JOIN. It continues his theme of undermining reasonable suggestions with what seem to me unfounded claims about human interaction and physiology and projections of his own life circumstance onto others, but ploughing my way though the frank exchange of views on MetaFilter made me want to engage a bit more constructively with it. So, here goes.


Culture, Media and Sport

After a bit of a music drought in 2018, 2019 had some great releases from familiar and new-to-me artists. Some highlights:

  • 65daysofstatic's Unreleased/Unreleasable Vol.4 subscription is a rare glimpse into how an experimental band experiments, and their new album Replicr, 2019 is an unusual example of a post-rock band becoming something different, successfully. Try five waves.
  • By way of contrast, Psapp sprung back out of their cave with Tourists, which fits firmly into their well-established groove, if perhaps a little more mellow at times. I love it. Try Progress.
  • I came across Anna Meredith's 2016 album Varmints mid-way through the year and had never heard anything like it. The album spans almost as many genres and moods as it has tracks. Her latest album Fibs came out at the end of the year and is even better. Try Inhale Exhale or Paramour.

A couple of albums with stand-out tracks:

  • I find Buke & Gase's Scholars a bit harder to listen to than their past work, but the title track is up there with all their past work.
  • Stealing Sheep's Big Wows fell a bit flat, but maybe because the lead single, Jokin’ Me, tops the highlight of from last album, Apparition.
  • On 30th December, I stumbled upon Memory Mirror, The Octopus Project's 2017 album. Mendoza is the highlight.

I read 30 books, of which I would recommend:

On a more sombre note: towards the start of the year, Dau finally made its way into the world, briefly. I didn't go to the exhibition in Paris, and I expect that very little of my technical work made it into that installation. Towards the end of the year, I was floored to learn that Alexei Blinov had passed away. Alexei was one of the first people I interacted with when I first became involved with the project, and the last person I bid farewell on my last day back in 2016. I imagined that our paths would cross again some day, somewhere at the intersection of art and technology, but in fact that was the last time we spoke. Alexei was a welcoming and fascinating individual, with great imagination; I'm glad I had the opportunity to work with him and count him as a friend.

Work and Pensions

Near the end of the year, I became Director of Platform at Endless, walking further down the engineering-management fork in the road. I've gratefully received advice from developers who've followed this branch in the road (and in some cases turned back). Several people recommended The Engineer/Manager Pendulum by Charity Majors, which I would also recommend.

After a few years with minimal travel, last year I went to Brussels (for FOSDEM and a GNOME Advisory Board meeting), San Francisco (visiting the Endless office to work on the product roadmap), and Thessaloniki (for GUADEC, where I gave a lightning talk). I've not done much public speaking for a while. Maybe I can do more of that this year.

Health and Social Care

After years of trying and failing for various reasons, I donated blood twice. Please do the same if you are able to.

Children, Schools and Families

My daughter turned two. She's the best! I rounded off the year by shaving my beard off for the first time in over 7 years. She asked me whether I “cleaned it off; was your beard dirty?”, which for someone who didn't know beards can be removed is a reasonable and insightful question.

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