2019 In Review

The world is on fire. Absolute bastards are hell bent on reducing the country I live in (and many other) to ruins, and stripping my generation, and those that come after us, of all the rights and privileges that our parents enjoyed.

So with all that taken as read: I really can’t look back on 2019 with anything other than happiness.

I’ve had a good year. I was hoping for a more settled and stable year than I had in 2018, and I absolutely got that. I’ve spent time with family and friends both old and new, I’ve enjoyed my job, I’ve been generally happy with how I’ve spent my spare time, and most importantly of all, Miranda and I got back together, and are actively planning for a future together, and I don’t have words for how happy I am about that. (That’s a lie. I do. I’m really really happy about that. No, happier than that. And happier than that, too.)

I can’t say I’m looking forward to 2020 on a global scale, but on a small and personal level, I’m really excited for the year to come.

I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am, and that many people have had a shit year, or are staring down the barrel of a rough year ahead, or both. I hope things will improve soon.

I hope that when the time comes to take stock at the end of 2020, we can all find ourselves happier than we are today.

The Making of Mercy

I spent the weekend in Wales, making a bronze age sword, and learning a lot of things. I can’t claim to have done it all by myself, and I can’t say we did it 100% as they did in the bronze age, but there’s enough of my sweat, blood and pain in the blade to make me feel like I got at least close.

The Bronze Age was not evenly distributed, but in Northern Europe, it ran from about 3200BCE to 600BCE. That’s the point at which we worked out that by combining copper with roughly 10-15% tin, we got a metal that could be used in all sorts of ways. In very broad terms, the smelting of bronze is the first serious bit of technology that humans came up with, and it’s the one that put them in charge of the environment. It’s the technology that allowed us to fell trees in a serious and sustained manner (seriously: try chopping into a tree with an axehead made of stone, and one made of bronze. You’ll soon see what I mean.). Bronze is the technology that first put us in charge of our environment.

To do this, I went to the middle of Wales. Really pretty literally. I went to a bronze age foundry a few miles away from Llandrinod Wells (look on a map – it’s not smack bang in the middle, but it’s close). And if ever I’d wanted the connection between smith and shaman made clearer, I got it here.

Comfortably outside the tribe, I think.

The shortest version of that connection: they’re specialist members of the tribe, who have special skills and a particularly ritual role, but there’s a lot we could talk about in regard of the symbolism of fire, and the fear of the person with access to technology that others do not understand as well. It’s not for nothing that the smith was sometimes the person who initiated the shaman, that’s all I’m saying.

The sword I made is one that’s designed after a sword that was believed to have been made in Ireland about 3000 years ago, one that would have looked a bit like this.

A leaf shaped blade, and a wooden hilt. Simple enough. But, as we saw over the weekend, with just a very little sharpening, this can slice a person badly – we watched a leg of lamb cut open to the bone with little to no effort with a sword exactly like one of the ones we made.

One of the most impressive parts of the weekend, aside from the work, and the magic, was the way that all this was put into a context for us, by the people that operated the foundry. Their understanding of where these technologies came from, and what they changed is profound. They encouraged us to think about what these things meant then, and now, and to us. I particularly loved what we did on the Saturday evening, when we sat in a bronze age roundhouse, by a firepit that is itself used to smelt bronze on other occasions, listening to a reading of a book of the Illiad, to help us realise that when we think of the heroes of greek myth, we’re talking about champions of the bronze age, and the kinds of swords they used were almost exactly like the ones we were making.

In the roundhouse.

So, the process, in brief:

  • Tin and copper are heated in a furnace.
  • The molten mixture is poured into a soapstone mould.
  • The resulting shape has various bits of mould flash removed (with an an angle grinder, because doing that part by hand would take longer than we had).
  • The sword is filed down with a couple of grades of hand file to remove pits and mould marks, then polished with many, many grades of sandpaper.
  • The sword is fitted with a wooden hilt, which is shaped a bit with another angle grinder then finished and polished by hand.
  • More polishing with sandpaper, and then an edge is put on it with more files. And it is sharp. The point of the weekend was not to make a toy or a display item, but to make a sword.

On the left, what it looked like to start with. On the right, the mostly-finished product.

And then, when you’re done, if you want, you can name your sword, and if you’ve come prepared, pour a libation on it and dedicate it to the deity of your choice in a pool fed by a stream – dipping the metal from the earth that has been purified by fire, into living water. For a number of personal reasons, my sword is named Mercy, and is dedicated to Brigid. It’ll be displayed above my hearth, just as soon as I have the mounts to do that.

In Memoriam: Hugh Hancock

On Monday morning, I was swapping texts with an old friend, Hugh Hancock. The basic gist of those texts was “sorry we can’t catch up tonight, I’ll catch you in a few months”.

I never will. He died suddenly, that evening, of a heart attack, aged just 40.

To say he accomplished a lot in his far-too-short life is to undersell it. I don’t think he knew the meaning of the word “impossible” or “can’t”. Or anything like them. For as long as I knew him, he’d parked himself on the bleeding edge of technology and storytelling, and he was always doing something that no-one else was. It wasn’t always perfect. It wasn’t always polished. But no-one else was doing it. So he did.

His career took him all over the world, to speak and lecture. I’ve always been sorry that I never actually got to see him do that professionally, because I’m sure he was great at it. You only had to talk to him for five minutes before you saw his passion and heart, and it was bloody infectious. He poured it into everything he did, and he brought people along with him.

In the process of this, he named an art-form, Machinima, and made the first feature-length film in it, at a time when every else who was making Machinima thought they were doing well to make a five minute comedy short. When he concluded that one of the things that was letting his film-making down was the quality of the voice talent, he went out and booked Brian Blessed, Joanna Lumley, Jack Davenport and Anna Chancellor for his next work. I still don’t quite know how he managed it. I’m not sure he knew how he managed it.

I think it’s fair to say that Machinima wouldn’t look the same without him. And as if one art form wasn’t enough, in the last few years, he’d turned his attention to VR games, and storytelling. Lacking the equipment to do so, I haven’t played his effort in that field but from the reaction to it, and it sounds like he hit exactly the mark he was aiming for, and showed people that yes, you can use VR games as a narrative form.

I’ve read a bunch of the tributes to him, from his friends and from strangers who only knew him through his work, and of all of them there’s a comment on a facebook thread made by his close friend Johnnie Ingram (whose own tribute to Hugh is singularly perfect), noting “The number of people saying some variation of ‘he quite literally changed my life’ is extraordinary”. I think that’s very true, and is absolutely the measure of the man.

But as I remarked elsewhere, it’s not his achievements I’ll miss. It’ll be my my funny, warm, kind friend.

It’ll be the lunatic who decided he wanted to cook sous-vide at home, years before you could buy a home sous-vide device, so dragooned an engineer friend into helping him hack about with a slow cooker and an electric thermocouple, to create the monstrosity of wiring and water that he dubbed his “atomic crockpot”. (He did not know the meaning of the word “impossible”. He may sometimes have been hazy on the meaning of the word “safety”.)

It’ll be the man who reduced me to tears of helpless laughter describing the process of drying duck for a banquet between two computer fans.

It’ll be the man who I could (and did) talk about anything with, and be assured that he’d just get it. Whatever it was. The friend who I might not see for months or years at a stretch, but we’d meet, and five minutes later, it’d be like no time had passed.

On Monday morning, when he texted to cancel, I wasn’t upset. I was sure that I’d see him in a few months time, and it’d be like no time had passed.

It is so unfair that that’s no longer true, I don’t have the words.

He was 40. He’d done so much, and still I am sure his best work was ahead of him. The world has lost a brilliant and kind man, and many, many people have lost a dear friend. My love and sympathy goes out to everyone that knew him, most especially his partner, and the rest of his family.

Idiocy: Week #2


Well, it’s been a fortnight. How’m I doing?

Well, badly, on one level. I’ve eaten a fair number non-Huel meals. I think I’ve only had five or six days where I lived entirely on Huel (meaning: 2000 calories worth of Huel consumed, plus maybe a biscuit or two). I’ve been out for meals with with friends a fair bit and I will not be the fucking weirdo drinking his sludge while everyone else eats real food. I’ve also had a friend’s birthday party at a craft beer pub, and the beer festival on Friday, so my less-alcohol thing isn’t doing terribly well, either.

I’ve gotten through a bit more than two bags of Huel. I’m adjusting to it. I bought a blender, which improves the texture no end, to the point where I’d say it was non=optional – shaking to mix just doesn’t cut it. The biggest help was the discovery that adding a banana and some cinnamon to it *massively* improves the taste, to the point where I quite enjoy it. Probably means I’m in danger of banana poisoning. Strawberries are another good additive, as are peaches. I tried using raspberries yesterday, something in the artificial sweetener in Huel does not go well with them. Still better than plain Huel up front, but the aftertaste with raspberries was very artificial – more so than with regular Huel. I’ve got a mix of blue and blackberries lined up next, as you’ll see in the photo above. Overall it’s turned out that I’m eating more fruit in addition to the Huel, so I’ve cut back so I’m only eating five portions of Huel a day, or three if I’m out for food in the evening.

Effects wise: Had a couple of nights where I found I was going to bed early, because I was tired. But I was up and feeling well-rested at 6:30 the following morning. I might actually just have been tired. Had some headaches the first day on all-Huel, but was fine the following day. Otherwise, I feel relatively normal, aside from some salt cravings the first few days. I suspect I might have stronger cravings for real food if I wasn’t eating out every few days. I’m finding myself hungry at odd intervals, because the calorie size in each meal isn’t what I’m used to, and I’m having to put a bit of mental effort into correctly spacing out my drinks, and not snacking over-much.

I’ve lost a small amount of weight. I’d probably have lost a bit more if it weren’t for the beer and those meals out with friends. Still within a pretty sensible range, something you’d expect with a balanced diet, and consuming slightly less calories that I have been while keeping up the same amount of exercise.

Honestly, I think the biggest difference I’m noting is what a daily step on the scales does for one’s awareness of what one is eating. On the one hand, it’s not an intrinsically unhealthy habit, tracking one’s weight, but I can absolutely see how it might be. The thought “what will eating this burger do to my weight tomorrow?” honestly crossed by mind the other night. Not, I will say, in a “oh god, I shouldn’t do this” way, I hasten to add, more in a “this will be interesting to learn” way. But I can see how one might go from one to the other. And I’ll be amused to watch any weight loss I might have managed from

At the moment, my overall impression is reasonably positive, particularly with the addition of fruit, and given that this supply is almost certainly going to last me more than a month, it’s certainly something I’d consider adopting as a replacement for breakfast and lunch when this trial is done, and then eating real food in the evenings. I’m going to try and force myself to consume nothing at all but Huel-with-fruit this week, just to see how I feel about it then…

Idiocy: Day #2

Don’t panic, I’m not going to write about this every day, just when I have something to note. So it’ll naturally front-load a bit, as I work out my routine, and what works for me.

So I actually wound up eating two meals of Huel yesterday, rather than my planned one. I didn’t have anything else in the house for lunch, and couldn’t leave the house to buy anything for various reasons. Huel recommend a 3 scoop (they give you a handy scoop for measuring) batch of Huel for a “good sized sandwich” type lunch of 450 calories or so. I had trouble drinking it.

Some of that was my fault – I added water to the powder and shook it, rather than adding the powder to water and shaking it. Turns out that order makes a big different to the texture – my lunch was really lumpy, which is not a phrase to fill anyone with delight, no matter what they’re eating. Huel, in their defence, are clear about this on their website.

But preparation errors aside, consuming 3 scoops in a sitting left me feeling a bit bloated. I’m thinking I’ll have to go with a 2-scoop drink every 2 hours or so, rather than 4 3-scoop meals a day. That’ll net me about 1800 calories from Huel, which leaves room for coffees, and blending some of the Huel with fruit to improve the taste. (I’m stress again that I’m not calorie counting, but I do need to know how much I’m consuming so I’m not grossly over- or under- eating.)

One of the theoretical selling points of Huel is that it’s convenient. I’m not convinced that preparing and consuming half a litre of beige slurry at roughly two-hour intervals is going to be at all convenient, but I guess we’ll see.

Also worth noting: I don’t know if it’s because I’d been to the gym this morning, or just because I am already learning to love my new slurry diet, but I found this morning’s batch much more palatable. I wouldn’t go as far as “nice” but I was hungry, and it tasted better than it did yesterday.

Idiocy: Day #1

This was breakfast:

Huel - mixed

Two scoops of powder, in about 500ml of water, makes a watery thing that’s half porridge, half smoothie. I got the vanilla flavour (it comes in in “regular” and vanilla) and it doesn’t taste unpleasant, but it doesn’t really taste nice, either. It tastes… liveable with. Just. I fell upon my morning coffee with even more gusto that I usually would, desperate for something with a flavour that I actively enjoy.

Texture wise, this first batch came out with a generally slightly gritty mouthfeel, and contained the odd lump, which made it slightly porridge-like. Diluting a bit more than they suggested improved the texture. It made it smoother and waterier, the latter of which doesn’t sound like an improvement, but actually I found it stopped it being neither one thing nor the other, and made it into, well, a drink. It also cut the sweetness of it a bit, which was good.

I also bought a flavouring for this (they supply flavourings separately) so I guess tomorrow morning, I’ll see how Rhubarb and Custard Huel tastes.

How do I currently feel about a month where this is the primary thing I live on? Well, I’m certainly going to be conducting a lot of experiments into how to improve this. My friend Derek has already been at this so I may steal some of his ideas, but I suspect that simply trying adding stuff like cinnamon and banana, and using a blender to make it (which will apparently improve the texture) will be first on the list.

I’m also working on the assumption that the human sense of taste being what it is (trainable), I’ll feel better about it in a few weeks than I currently do. I really hope I will, or I’m not going to enjoy August much at all.

On the bright side, the washing up was a doddle.

A Bold New Frontier of Stupidity

As a professional idiot, I am often asked “Alasdair, has your brain stood on end and shat itself? Again?”

And I am forced to admit that yes, yes it has.

You see, I’ve just bought a month’s supply of this stuff.


It’s Huel. A UK equivalent of that Soylent stuff that all the weird Bay Area people who are too intellectual for food have decided is the future and we’re all to learn to enjoy out delicious beige slurry now, because it’ll be mandatory later.

So why the hell have I bought it? I mean, I like food. I really like food. I like everything about it. And I’m about to spend most of a month living on vanilla flavoured sludge, and pretending that it’s somehow a replacement for a thing that didn’t need replacing. I am not excited about this concept. What the hell am I doing?

Well, obviously, I’m curious to see what happens, that’s why I’m doing it. I want to know what’ll happen if I spend a month eating an actually properly balanced diet for the first time in my adult life. I’m not doing it for weight loss (although I suspect I’ll lose some) I’m doing it to see what it feel like to eat properly healthily, to give my body all the nutrition if actually needs, as opposed to just shoving some variant on red meat in it more times a week than is recommended by anyone with an ounce of sense.

What’re the rules here, then? I’m not doing this to self-flagellate, and I’m not going to pretend this is the future and a good thing. I am aware this is a mad thing to be doing. So I don’t feel the need to be ultra strict about how I approach this.

With that in mind, over the next week or so, I’m going to build up to living on a 2000-calorie a day Huel diet. (Doing it all at once would by my personally preferred approach, but I understand that can cause the toxic shits, so I’m going to ease in with one Huel meal a day for the first 2-3 days, then another few days of 2 meals a day, before I get to the all-Huel stage.) Once I am on that diet, I intend to operate under the following loose rules.

1) I am allowed to eat other meals, if I am in company (assuming I skip the equivalent quantity of Huel, obviously). Ideally not more than once a week. If I go an entire week without eating in company, and I find myself craving real food, I may allow myself an actual meal.
2) If I am at the pub to be social, I am allowed up to 2 pints of beer, or equivalent, if I really want it. I am allowed as much lime and soda as I’d like.
3) I am allowed as much fruit juice and coffee/tea as I’d like.

I’m obviously going to track my weight and a few other metrics as I go. I might post a vague summary of them at the end of this. Otherwise, well, yes, I am going to keep a diary of this, so you can all point and laugh at the idiot as I go. I imagine you’ll get the first installment tomorrow, after I’ve had breakfast.

My Life As A Science Fiction Plumber

None of this is any thrilling insight, or anything that’s not been said before by smarter folk than I, it’s just something that amused me this morning.

A significant part of my job is providing estimates. I break down what the client is asking for, suck air in through my teeth, and mutter “well, we can do that, but it’ll cost…”.

Complicating matters is that fact that with a coding-type job of any complexity/size, 90% of the time, I’m being asked “this thing you haven’t ever done before, how long will it take to do?”. Because if I’d done it before, the code would be around to re-use and the cost would low.

What constantly amuses (or frustrates) me, though, is non-technical people’s expectations of these costs. 90% of the time, I provide a quote and the response is “but it’s just doing X”. The idea that if something is simple to say, it must be simple to do is almost never true. But about 10% of the time (and it’s this 10% that makes my job worth it), someone comes to me and says “look, I know this is probably really expensive, but could we do X?” and I get to say “mate, I can do that for you in ten minutes, let me just sort that out for you now”.

It amuses me that the expectations gap cuts both ways.

This occurred to me this morning in a science fiction context, as my Apple TV screensaver kicked in, and I saw a beautiful ariel shot of dawn over New York, and I thought of a line in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, wherein he imagines a technology he called a “Wander Window”. Essentially, an apartment window that instead of showing the world immediately outside, showed beautiful views from around the world. In the fiction, a delivery man sees it, adn remarks on it as a highly expensive luxury item, saying something like “It’d creep me out, living somewhere this rich.”

My TV is now my wander window, and today, some version of this is a pretty trivial technology that’s baked into TV products pretty much as standard. My parents have it. When building these things, it’s the ten-minute job, rather than the “ooh, it’ll cost you…” job. And what’s interesting to me is that there was never really a time when putting a screensaver in a TV was an expensive job. As soon as it became possible to do it, it was (relatively) easy.

And of course this isn’t really about the fallibility of science fiction predictions (I mean, Warren was actually bang on with his tech prediction there), or the difficulties of estimating.

I find myself wondering what other science fiction technologies, when they get here, will be the ten minute job. What is there that, by the time we can do it, is going to be much easier to do than we think? Are we going to find that by the time we can send someone to Mars, that terraforming it will be trivial? What challenges are easier than we expect?

Tea, Earl Grey, Lukewarm

Bookmarking a link to an article in praise of Amazon’s Echo got me thinking about voice controlled computing, where it is now, where it’s going, it’s upsides and it’s flaws.

My major experience of it is with Apple’s Siri – via watch, phone, and TV. And I’ve found that I do specific tasks with Siri on each one. On the watch, I turn my lights out at night. (Yes, that much of a nerd.) On the phone, I set reminders and alarms. On the TV, I skip back 30 seconds, or sometimes a minute.

Yes, I really do just those specific things. Mostly because those are the things I’m confident with – I know they work, they do so reliably and are useful. Other things I’ve tried tend to either be hit-and-miss, or the technology just isn’t quite there yet.

Here’s an example: if I could say “Hey Siri, play Songs of Separation from the laptop via the speakers in the living room”, or “Hey Siri skip back 20 mins, then start playing last night’s audiobook on the bedroom speaker”, those I’d use a lot. They’re convenience tasks, which is what voice feels most natural for – things you want to do while also doing something else.

But those are currently too complicated for Siri – it simply doesn’t know enough (and I can’t teach it) to identify my home audio equipment, it’s not contextually aware enough, and it’s not deeply integrated with 3rd party apps (or rather, 3rd party apps aren’t deeply enough integrated with it), and it’s not good enough at parsing my specific speech – I have to speak in a way it understands, rather than it simply understanding how I speak. Even just being able to say to my phone/watch “Hey siri do X on the laptop” (eg: “open this link on the laptop for when I get home”) would be useful, but we’re still a while away from that.

So where do I see this all going?

An optimistic view: this feels very like the web felt in 1995/6. There’s definitely something here, and we’re a few years off it starting to get serious. Another few years after that, it’ll be everywhere, and ten years after that, we’ll barely remember a time when it wasn’t commonplace. My nieces are going to grow up shouting at their household appliances.

A less optimistic view: this isn’t the web. It’s not a set of interoperable standards that anyone can hook into, it’s a load of low-walled gardens. Siri works with Apple products. Cortana with Microsoft. Google have something or other, Facebook something else. They all talk to the everyday web to some extent, but for more advanced interactions, they only talk to some products provided by individually selected third parties, for commercial reasons.

The only one that makes me even a little optimistic is the Amazon one, Echo, because I can write my own back end for it – so Amazon do the speech to command translation, and fire something at my code, which does something in response. The problem is that that’s great for the web, but less useful for the home appliances.

On that front, Siri, and Apple’s homekit have a slight lead, but not much of one – it’s a closed system that requires hardware developers to work directly with Apple. We’re going to wind up with several sets of products, that don’t entirely work well together. It’s going to be the vocal equivalent of trying get a PC and Mac networked together in the early nineties, and we’re going to be stuck there for a decade and more.

An even less optimistic view: the idea that our homes are going to be full of internet-connected passive listening devices is unbelievably creepy, and a recipe for disaster – either from state surveillance or hacking (or more likely both at the same time). You could not pay me to put a Google or Facebook listener in my house – they’ll only make money off it by selling what it hears to advertisers, and I’m not up for that. I don’t like my web browsing being tracked, I am not having my casual conversation around the house being tracked.

Amazon – not sure, they’re at least a company who I pay for things, rather than a company that sell me to advertisers. Apple – most likely, they’re pretty good on privacy and encryption (assuming the US government doesn’t fuck that up for all of us), but they’re also the least interested in giving me something I can write my own commands for that exist separate to their devices. Either way: it’ll remain a problem that’s about 40% solved for ages.

I suspect we’ll get a little bit of all the above. The actual utility of voice control is only going to be better from here but it’ll remain fractured, so you’ll be forced to pick a product family to set up in your home, and when you make that choice, you’ll be able to choose between a cheap surveillance bot that sells your data, or a much more expensive suite of homeware that also come with the luxury of privacy.

Writing by Women and POC

I’ve caught a couple of posts doing the rounds in the last month or two basically asking the question “how many books by women writers have you read?”, obviously with the aim of getting us to confront the inbuilt sexism in our cultural consumption.

I’m not going to bore you with a listing of the writing by women I own/have read. What I will say is that only around 25% of my library is by women. (Please don’t ask me about POC, that’s an even smaller number. I’m not proud of that.)

I want to make 2016 the year I start to correct this. I want to read, at minimum, one new book a month by women or POC.

Yes, that’s still pretty pitiful. The sad truth is that working from home has entirely cratered my reading habit, which used to be about 2 hours a day, while commuting, and is now about 4 hours a week in a good week. I want to set a goal I can reach and exceed, and keep going in future years, not a goal I’m going to miss by month 3, and give up on.

So, if there’s a book by women or POC that I really *must* read this year, feel free to suggest it in the comments/on Twitter.

Current “to read” pile:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Hild, Nicola Griffith
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Yes, that’s all women, no POC. Those 4 have the benefit of having been on my “I really must get around to this” pile for some years now. I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with them, I’ll have the benefit of some other recommendations. If not, I’m sure I can google around for them.

Also: that list is skewing a bit toward what I think of relatively heavyweight/classic. I’m as keen (if not keener, my tastes are not highbrow) to read light/pulpy/action-y stuff, so if there’s some cheery trash you think I’d enjoy, please, fling that in, although the odds I’ve already read it may be slightly better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to use my holiday time to get some reading in.