1. Intro - dreaming of millennia

    I can remember fairly clearly the first time I seriously tried to calculate the future . I was maybe ten years old, lying in bed and re-reading an issue of 2000 AD, and for the first time, I was puzzling over the idea that that title, intentionally and inherently futuristic, represented a real calendar date that would one day arrive, and somehow, calamitously render the name obsolete. I tried to figure out how old I would have to be by the time we reached this epoch, but as I recall, it was beyond my reckoning. It didn’t seem that likely I would live long enough for vengeful androids and routine interstellar travel, and yet even from 1977, the year 2000 seemed countable. And here I am, now, in 2020, A number that looks so impossibly, so implausibly of, from, and for the future my brain isnt really comfortable holding on to it. But first we must put away 2019. Here's my 2019 roundup, in something like 20 paragraphs.

    I rejoined social media:

    2018 I had a year off Twitter, feeling a bit exhausted by it all. It didn't really seem to make much difference. Now the Internet seemed to have invaded, occupied and consumed everything. Surveillance capitalism now so entrenched it was to be a regular part of mainstream think piece commentary. Network effects being what they are, It’s deluded and futile to make even token efforts to keep beyond these tracking networks, the reach is now such that secondary and tertiary associations will just link around you and pull you in anyway. So I bounced back onto Twitter, signed up for Instagram, and even rejoined Facebook-and rectivated Foursquare. I’m not particularly excited by any of them. At best, they represent a low friction way of posting light life updates, and it's nice to get reciprocal insights back about people I know, but don't see regularly. (And now I don't really see anyone regularly, so that’s a thing) It's fine, but we can do better. Ironically 2019 feels like the year everyone started to gently pull back from all this online sharing stuff. Ho hum.

    Gene Wolfe died

    Boo. Probably my favourite author, genre or otherwise. Age 87, which is by any account a splendid innings. A couple of personal resonances last year. I finally finished reading the “solar cycle”, which contains some of my most loved books. I started when I was fifteen, and I was just starting into the final volume when he died. And then the Folio Society issued a fairly exquisite luxury edition of his masterpiece, "The Book of the New Sun", signed, numbered and limited to 750 pieces, and which I somehow managed to discover and purchase before they sold out. I felt pretty decadent, and guilty about spending hundreds of pounds on a fancy copy of a book I already owned, but within weeks people were listing them on eBay for thousands, so maybe it was a wise investment? Anyway, Wolfe is amazing, and-if you havent read him, why not try? Start with the Fifth Head of Cerberus, I would.

    A Haircut:

    Untitled

    by the end of the year, I was bored of the hair, so it's all off again. I suspect the next time it grows back in may well be all white.

    An ASD diagnosis:

    No not me. We've basically known about it for a long time ourselves, and painfully been pursuing a diagnosis through the systems for literally years, but late in the year we obtained a professional diagnosis of ASD for number one child. Shock, relief, and lots to process for everybody, but a powerful sense of progress in a way that feels constructive and enabling, not reductive and labelling.

    Weddings x2:

    Here's a surprise ageing effect. Having got past "peer group wedding” season, and assuming weddings were all done I seem to have hit "generation below hits wedding season" season, and now weddings are a thing again. That's cool, I like weddings. This summer was two, both fancy AF. One in a cathedral, one in Cyprus. The latter was an Orthodox church service, which was quite unlike anything else I have previously experienced. Weddings are a pretty big deal in Cyprus.

    Castles:

    Castles

    Throughout 2019 we held a family membership to English Heritage, and as a result spent a few weekends wading around ancient English castles. There are quite a few spectacular examples In this part of the county, closest to the mainland (we can see France very with the naked eye most days). Dover is particularly astonishing. Pretty middle-aged, I guess. National Trust next?

    Photography:

    I've been getting gently back into using actual cameras for photography. Maybe inspired by instagram? Possibly just because my predilection for "alternative" smartphone operating systems lumbers me with dreadful quality camera software? Regardless, I have been having fun shooting things with real glass - on my much loved power shot GX9-2, which sadly caught some water damage on a recent trip to Malta and is still drying out four months later - but this gave me an excuse to upgrade it to a slightly larger slightly more posh Canon M100, which is more cumbersome and not quite as fun to use, but easily compensates for that in image quality and lower light performance. I don't even muck about with much manual selection, mostly plain automatic shooting, but I really enjoy something about the deliberation, and the ceremony, and having to actively curate, triage and extract the images off the camera in order to use them for anything. Mindfulness? Contrarianism? Whatever, Fun.

    Still in Folkestone:

    Yup. After quitting London to work remotely, we sold the big house, and shifted even further south to Folkestone, where I remain, the most mundane kind of digital nomad imaginable. I like it a lot. I was born by the sea, I grew up by, in and on the sea, and now, once again, I walk, with dog, alongside the actual sea, most days. I've even gone in it to swim. Folkestone is my kind of town really - collapsing Victorian splendour, a harbour, vague touches of bohemia, light gentrification, that isn't trying too hard, and you can clearly see France most days, without effort, and that is something I will never not find mind-bendingly magical.. It does rain a bit too much, mind you.

    Dental surgery:

    2019 Was the year I finally gave up pretending I could largely ignore the pitifully untended state of my teeth. Actually, it was the teeth that made the decision for themselves. I have a pretty strong dental phobia (Maltese dentistry in the 1970's was not great), but by the middle of the year something was painfully not right in an area that had been slightly bothersome for years, and pain was escalating alarmingly. I still couldn't manage the appointment making myself, so thanks to my lovely wife, I ended up enrolled with a local private practice, and with a fairly gruesome diagnosis : -an impacted wisdom tooth had grown down into my jaw and accessed, destroying two molars, and threatening jaw damage. Surgical intervention was required, and due to my panic-stricken inability to co-operate, it was to be done under a still fairly Terrifyingly named process of "conscious sedation". That meant a referral, three months of waiting for a slot at a specialist clinic, and an almost constant diet of pain-killers in the interim (as well as two very uncomfortable, and strictly speaking forbidden, international flights) but eventually I got through it. The conscious sedative was one of the most surprising experiences I have ever had. Strapped into a chair in a small theatre, and attached to a drip, I remember a brief chat about consent, and then the next thing I remember I was in the passenger seat of the car on the way home, a mouth full of wadding, having entirely lost a couple of hours and a couple of teeth! I am left wondering if I was out for the operation, or if I have simply retained no memory of it, and what precisely is the dittoed between those two anyway? I find the very existence of this kind of instant blackout drugs and astonishing and implausible marvel. If It were a plot device in a fiction, I'd have scoffed at how completely unrealistic it was. So now I have a dentist, a treatment plan, no headaches, and two Fewer teeth. Lots more work needed, but it feels achievable. And I’ve experienced time-travel.

    Common [email protected]:

    Love this one. My day job is still working at platform.sh, where we have a home grown container runtime that powers our "cloud" project. Cloud engineering is my team, and literally my first act in the job was to port one of my existing lisp web apps to the runtime as an experiment. Well, it turns out our VP of engineering is also a lisper, and we have ended up extending these experiments to building a couple of internal tools in SBCL, which are of course hosted on the platform. These proved useful enough to keep, and at that point, it started to make sense to productionize the lisp containers, so we can have a first class and maintainable build, rather than shoehorn a lisp install into a capable enough container. At which point there was no reason to not make this publicly available for customer projects, which we announced with a blog post, which was well recieved on the social platforms. I only had a tiny part in all of the above processes, but it is still one of the coolest things I have ever been involved with at work and remains a wonderful reminder that I have a pretty cool job and work with a great team.

    A-Rank in Splatoon!:

    I adore Splatoon, Nintendo’s gloriously styled paint-em-up, online FPS. I’ve been playing it quite regularly since launch on the Wii U, and through into it's subsequent re-packaging as Splatoon 2 on the Switch. I love everything about the game, from the mechanics, which are well-considered and balanced, all the way through to the world-building and the whole skate-tween-punk cartoon fish aesthetic. I mostly play ranked, and although I wouldn't claim to be particularly good, 2019 was the year I finally sneaked A rank after years of trying. And not just once, but in a couple of categories (zones, tower, and rainmaker) Yes I realize this is because fewer people are still playing. What of it. I have a badge.

    TV:

    I watch a lot of TV. and I'm not ashamed of it. I know we're living through peak TV, but for me 2019 was a less than stellar year. Plenty of things, I probably should like, I just didn't. I dont have much appetite for "The Apprentice" anymore, although it can still deliver hilariously awful situations from its contrived casting. “Fleabag” annoyed me almost as much as it charmed. Star Trek regularly sent me to sleep (love the art direction still). The concluding series or Mr Robot was great, I've thoroughly enjoyed that whole run, but it was time to sign off. "Homecoming" wasn't quite so great, but it worked. I think my favorite show from last year would have to be discovering “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on Netflix (awful title. do try to get past the title) - Super-smart, subversive , unpredictable, bingeable, engaging, and great music. I was already a huge Adam Schlesinger fan, and now I guess I'm a Rachel Bloom fan too. So many earworms. Bring back old Greg!

    Books:

    I suck at reading, these days I know it's a common modern Iffliction. I have been trying to make an effort. I finished the Gene Wolfe Solar books, as I mentioned earlier, but otherwise 2019 was not so great. According to my Goodreads account (doesn't capture everything but it's fairly accurate) , I only managed nineteen books, some of which I can't even remember reading. Aside from Wolfe, I think my high points would have to be "The Peripheral" and "Ingenious Pain" . 2020 we have a sequel to "The Peripheral" due, as well as the final installment of Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books and I'm going to do better. Im trying to do ten minutes entirely focused reading a day this year. Going well so far (2 books finished already)

    Movies:

    I'm still struggling here as well, although we do a weekly family movie night, I still rarely get to the cinema. I did make it to see “Rise of Skywalker" and thus I did manage to see every Star Wars movie on initial cinema release. I'm afraid the most enthusiasm I can find about that is that I’m glad it's done. Similarly, on the other franchise I finally got up to date with Marvel by reaching “Avengers: Endgame" on streaming, and I'm mostly happy to be able to say “OK, this can stop”. The kids got into Harry Potter, having reached that sort of age, and so I also belatedly got to the end of those, and my goodness they're bad. Things, I actively liked- “Lady Bird”, Netflix's "Annihilation" was superb, and my favourite was probably "Sword of Trust". And on Xmas Eve I decided to watch an ancient favourite, "Lair of the White Worm" which I enjoyed revisiting so much, I may make it into a Xmas tradition from now on. Ken Russell(I) is my man.

    A New kitchen:

    Our kitchen seemed to be in relatively good shape when we bought the house, but it had a conservatory attached to where the back door ought to be, which although it made for a lovely sense of light and space was punishingly cold in the winter. So we decided to get a glazed back door fitted between. And then we found rotting wallpaper trapped behind the kitchen units over damp plaster, and decided to get a nicer fitted kitchen while addressing that. And then we discovered a water leak running down the back wall. And then a cascade of horrors, including a lintel-free window, a removed chimney being held up by what looked like a nail through an old chair leg, three layers of wall cladding, and perhaps most excitingly, several rotten joists not doing the greatest job of keeping the upstairs upstairs. Cue months of no kitchen, stripping everything back to brick, jacking up the roof, replacing beams, dry lining everything. and then potting in a kitchen back on top. And now we have a back door. And quite a nice kitchen. And far less money.

    Malta & Cyprus:

    Two Foreign holidays? I already mentioned my friend's magical destination wedding earlier, but by way of attending we got to spend almost a Week, without children, (thanks, Grandma!) in a pretty swanky hotel in Limassol. Cyprus is hot in the summer, and I say that as someone quite used to heat. So I ended up doing something I have never done before, and just hung out poolside, reading, and swimming and being waited on. And that was just great. And Despo came by to visit, which was a lovely coincidence. Then, a couple of months later we all went to hang out in another resort hotel, but this time in Qawra , in a Family oriented holiday complex. That's the first time we've done significant overseas travel as a family, also the first time I've been back in Malta in almost a decade. I enjoyed the opportunity to show the girls a little of the sense of what Malta is like, and I stole away for a poignant solo visit back to my old home town, my last opportunity to do it as a full EU citizen.

    Hal-Balzan 2019

    Softwares:

    I am feeling quite out of love with computers and software, and especially the flipping internet and the incessant noise bubble of the tech industry. At the moment, I'm afraid to say, outside of work (work is cool, as mentioned already) I’m not really indulging in very much computering. A brief spurt of activity on a secret, not yet abandoned, but not yet revisited project, at the start of the year, and then nothing really - a few isolated sessions of hacking on the software for this site which only really focused on infra things and build chains - I guess I have a useable flow for generating 32 bit ARM debs from Common Lisp applications, but that's more bureaucracy and housekeeping than hacking, and even I don’t find it that enthralling. And most of my infrastructure is still a mess after moving. Maybe 2020 I'll find a way to relight the spark. Maybe I'm done ? Seems unlikely, but I’m not inspired.

    I love my new shaver:

    On a more positive technology note, I did fall severely in love with a piece of consumer electronics. I finally lost patience with my Philips rotary head shaver, after years of dissatisfaction and overspending on replacement foils and cutting heads that never really helped much. Not really knowing where to turn to for advice, I tried the wire cutter, something I’m a little wary of trusting and I picked up a Braun series 7 during Black Friday month at amazon.co.uk, and no exaggeration, It has COMPLETELY CHANGED MY LIFE. I am competely astonished at the ease of use, enthralled by the consistency of the result, and enraptured by the sense of considered Germanic engineering that exudes from every aspect. I love this thing and it makes me happy while I am using it.

    No music:

    I am barely listening to anything. Some of it is because I've barely strung my music library infrastructure back together after relocating. Some of it’s because I'm too old and boring and middle aged. Some of it's because I still don't have a subscription to a streaming service, and some of it's just because I think I have just lost the habit of it. I have been playing guitar much more in the past 12 months than in previous years, and l am flirting with writing and recording a little bit more again. 2019 though, is a solid musical wash-out.

    iOS WTF:

    I know! I'm back on (an) iPhone after YEARS away. Actually, I jumped via an iPad first. I’ve been enjoying this fanciful idea of multiple, task-specific devices, and I wondered about splitting the non-coding, computer things away from my laptop and I thought I'd give an iPad mini a try-out as a general-purpose 'personal' computing device; Apps, email, browsing, etc. It was a mixed success- I use it for some things way more than I expected I would, it is basically the only way I do email now, I have used it to write the entirety of this blog post. (by hand, with a pencil, plenty of weird typos!), and a bit less for others (I had a quixotic notion that I'd finally get everything organised into digital calendaring but I still remain a barely calendared human) Overall though, I likes it. It’s very reliable, I’d say it’s a slightly more useful thing than it appears to be on the surface, and a slightly less capable thing than it appears in the advertisements. I'm quite happily onboarded now though, to the point that I feel comfortable treating it as the primary device / silo for certain categories of things. So much so that when I hit a patch of phone trouble with my Sony Xperia 2 running /e/ (This year I have bounced between Lineage, /e/ and SailfishOS in my continuing adventures in alternative phone systems) I decided to dust off an almost dead iPhone 6S and give it a try. And, it's fine. Fine enough that I refurbished the battery myself, which cost fifteen pounds, and was surprisingly straightforward and kept going. Several months on, I'm still using it. Although not all that much. I think one of the side effects of moving more of my "app stuff" over to the iPad is that I'm not really using my phone for anything much these days beyond light social networking, messaging and podcasts. Oh yeah , and Apple Pay everywhere! I love Apple Pay almost as much as I love my electric Shaver. It is quite peaceful not having to care about whether my phone is working or not when I need to take a call.

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  2. I love making New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure I am good at them, but I enjoy the tradition. Every year, I tend to set at least a small handful. Sometimes they're entirely private, sometimes I publicise them. I don't know that they ever tend to be that successfully realised, but to me that's part of the system. I like to think there's much that is useful to learn from how I fail to achieve them, and maybe that's some part of the benefit. Sometimes I pull them off with aplomb, and that always feels pretty good.

    This year I set myself an extraordiary reading challenge. A couple of years ago, on some kind of whim, I think prompted by a positive review in either The Guardian, or Word Magazine (RIP), I purchased, and read Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland. This is an engaging biographical chronology of the English novel. It covers 294 novelists of significance in historical sequence. The format is readable, there's a 3-4 page potted biography of each author, and then a short summary. So you end up with a sort of illuminated canon starting in the seventeeth century, and leading you up to the roughly present day. The author choices are not always obvious, but neither are they deliberately obscure, and the tone is light, cheeky and erudite, and it works as an entertainment just as much as a reference piece, I unreservedly recommend it.

    Part of the summary notes at the end of each chapter, suggests a Must Read Tome, for each writer. These themselves are not always the most obvious work, and carry a little paragraph of justification alongside the choice. So for 2017, in a fit of optimism, alongside a grab-bag of other self-improvement goals, I decreed I would attempt to read every MRT in sequence. Clearly this was an overreach going in. 294 books is approaching a novel a day, and I was unlikely to chew through all of them in the year, but I figured I could keep going with it and see how well I did.

    We've passed the halfway mark now, and I'm happy to report it's going awfully. I have managed four books. The most recent one is not even half-finshed. I guess I kind of suck at this. I think there are a couple of mistakes I made on the surface. One I have already skirted around - it's too big a target. Factor into that the fact that I have relatively little spare time for reading fiction, and I also decided to take on a pile of other resolutions that demand daily hobby time (I'm teaching myself a foreign language! Badly!) and it's even more daunting a target. One book a month would be quite a feat, if I'm honest.

    I think I might organised little potted reviews as I finish each book, to try and gee myself along a bit. Also, I made a resolution to do more blogging in 2017. That's right, does it show? Book reports seem like easy-reach fruit. Watch this space.

    Perhaps the most egregious error though, was to fix myself to the chronology. Whilst this means that I am starting out firmly in the lands of the copyright expired public domain, which makes legal book aquistion very economical, it also means that I've front-loaded the material with tough going books. We start out with challenging archaic language, and structure, and this makes an already sluggish project a little more slower going. I don't believe in changing the rules midstream, however, and I intend to persist.

    I thought I'd broken the back of the slightly-too-hard-to-read-comfortably years, when I got through to Defoe, but I hadn't taken into account another pitfall of the early romantic novel. Verbiage. After Defoe I get Samuel Richardson. And the MRT is Clarissa. That's nine fricking volumes of epistolary marriage plot. It might be the longest novel published in the English language. I've nearly finished book one, and it's taken me three months. I sincerely doubt I'll get through this bugger before 2018. It's fascinating, heady stuff though, I am enjoying it. Many tribulations, and archaic mores. A terrifying insight into the political lot of even the priviliged eighteenth century englishwomen. Also, much swoon.

    Could this be a ten year project? I'm not quitting.

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  3. There’s been a little flurry of le Carré activity in the British press this week , following on from release of MI5 archive files that indicate that an MI5 agent, known as Jack King ran a network of UK nazi collaborators during WWII. Highly fortunate timing for the British spooking establishment to garner some positive press, some might say. The last couple of months the news reports about them have mostly been about illegal mass surveillance techniques attempting to record and analyze all internet traffic at source , and creepy write ups of mass automated collation of private video chats . Some of them intended to be particularly private , no doubt.


    Journalists had a bit of fun trying to retrospectively finger the real Jack King . The Telegraph decided King was probably John Bingham, Lord Clanmorris , whose name is usually mentioned in passing in press stories about ‘le Carré’, itself a pen-name for David Cornwell , who often mentions that Bingham is one of the component inspirations behind his super-famous fictional master spycatcher, George Smiley. The Telegraph also span off an article about Bingham’s sense of disapproval of his protégé's literary exploits . Mr Cornwell, writing under his given name, sent in a marvellously succinct letter by way of reply.



    Bingham was of one generation, and I of another. Where Bingham believed that uncritical love of the Secret Services was synonymous with love of country, I came to believe that such love should be examined. And that, without such vigilance, our Secret Services could in certain circumstances become as much of a peril to our democracy as their supposed enemies.John Bingham may indeed have detested this notion. I equally detest the notion that our spies are uniformly immaculate, omniscient and beyond the vulgar criticism of those who not only pay for their existence, but on occasion are taken to war on the strength of concocted intelligence



    Navigating around the little flurry of reportage about this little back and forth, I found this engrossing older Q&A with le Carré , from the Paris Review , held at the time of the US publication of “ The Tailor Of Panama ”, back in the late 1990s. It is a marvellous read, concerning the mechanics, circumstances and techniques of his fictional writing, and touches into politics. This quote leapt off the page at me.



    My definition of a decent society is one that first of all takes care of its losers, and protects its weak.



    Quite. He’s quite a writer, that Mr. le Carré. If all you know of his work are the mostly excellent TV and motion picture adaptations of his more famous works, you might do yourself a favour, and read a few of the source novels . They work best tackled in publication order.

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